Four ousted in Florida Blind Services after audit discloses sweetheart deal

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauDecember 20, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE — Thousands of state workers haven't received pay raises in years, but Division of Blind Services worker Caroline McManus was due for a $97,000 boost overnight.

The plan: To quit her $59,000 computer programming position and return the next day as a $156,000 contractor.

All the managers approved it. Same job, same desk, more than double the pay.

While that sounds like a great deal for the employee, it also violates a rule that bans workers from leaving state jobs and returning within two years for more money.

After learning about the ploy from an audit released this week, officials with the Department of Education, which oversees the Division of Blind Services, halted it and fired two employees, suspended two others without pay, and forced two more to resign. One of those forced to resign was the division's director, Joyce Hildreth, who had approved the pay raise for McManus.

This is only the latest sign of turmoil at the Division of Blind Services. Last month, a Times/Herald story revealed Hildreth, a former contractor, farmed out no-bid contracts to her former co-workers that were so loosely worded the groups could charge $58 per hour for driving to a blind person's house or more than $2,000 for a brief phone call.

This week's audit, by the Department of Education Office of the Inspector General, said that several workers knew for months about the plan to rehire McManus. But investigators said they didn't object because, in the words of one employee, "This kind of situation happens all the time." A similar case with a second employee is under investigation.

"The department will continue to look into (the Division of Blind Services) to be certain that there are no other issues and that the division is doing the best job for the people they serve," Department of Education spokeswoman Cynthia Sucher wrote in an email.

The Division of Blind Services operates a $52 million budget and hires private vendors to help 11,000 blind Floridians manage their disability.

According to the audit, the Department of Education needs to better follow the rules for contracts and bidding.

Case in point: Of the 12 supervisors and employees interviewed in the report, almost everyone seemed unclear on whose responsibility it was to decide whether McManus was eligible for a state contract.

Paul Harbin, who requested the contract for McManus, was one of those fired. He was offered the opportunity to resign, but refused because he didn't believe he did anything wrong.

Harbin argues that he's not responsible for knowing and interpreting state law. He thought hiring McManus didn't sound right, but said he had heard of that happening before. Still, he said he consulted with every manager and with Department of Education attorney Charles Pellegrini — who acknowledged to investigators he gave the wrong advice. Pellegrini was suspended for five days without pay.

"My entire career is spotless; integrity is a large part of who I am," said Harbin, a 21-year state employee. "Anyone who has worked with me would tell you I would never knowingly break a rule."

McManus told investigators she had no idea she was doing anything wrong when she started her own consulting firm — McManus Business Consulting, Inc. — to cash in on a Blind Services contract.

Her desk was mere yards from private contractors who do the same, or less work, for more than double the salary, she told investigators. McManus did not return calls to her home phone.

Mary Ellen Ottman, who quit Blind Services in September, said she's not surprised by the report's findings.

"I have thought for a long time that contract dealings were not fair," she said. "The problem goes deeper than this one incident. There really needs to be some changes."

The spokeswoman for Jeff Atwater, Florida's chief financial officer, urged the department to bolster its hiring procedures.

"The mismanagement of contracts and grant agreements in our state can potentially cost Florida taxpayers millions every year," said Anna Alexopoulos. "It is important to have stronger contract and grant standards in place as well as better training so that managers can spot red flags and correct potential issues before dollars are deployed."

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