Florida’s top advocate for the elderly and nursing home residents was placed on “indefinite” leave last week amid an internal investigation into unspecified alleged wrongdoing, plunging the state’s Long-term Care Ombudsman Program once again into controversy.
Harold J. “Jim” Crochet, who has been the State Ombudsman for most of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, was placed on administrative leave, with pay, effective immediately on Friday. In a terse memo by Crochet’s boss, Elder Affairs Secretary Charles T. Corley, Crochet was told his leave was “to be served at your residence until you are notified in writing.”
“During this period, you are restricted from visiting the office and communicating with paid staff or volunteers, unless you are specifically directed to do so,” Corley wrote in his memo. “Failure to comply with this directive will subject you to disciplinary action.”
The Miami Herald obtained records of Crochet’s suspension under the state’s public records law.
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The subject of the Elder Affairs investigation remains a mystery, and a spokeswoman for the agency refused to discuss Crochet, or to provide The Miami Herald any records relating to the probe. Spokeswoman Ashley Marshall said the records are confidential, since Crochet is under investigation by the agency’s Inspector General’s Office.
Fueling the drama is an email sent Friday by the Ombudsman Program’s top lawyer, Susan E. Anderson. In it, Anderson instructs employees of the program to avoid any contact with Crochet, adding: “Do not discuss anything with him.” Any contact from Crochet, Anderson said, should be forwarded to the agency’s human resources department or other administrators.
“Do not respond to media questions other than to refer them to Ms. Marshall,” Anderson wrote in a later email.
Crochet could not be reached for comment. A number that appeared to be his home phone was not in service.
Crochet’s tenure with the department has been stormy virtually from the beginning.
He replaced Brian Lee, an elder advocate who was canned after he tried to use a provision of the new federal Affordable Care Act to obtain information about the ownership of marginal nursing homes. Lee argued his dismissal violated the federal ombudsman law designed to protect elder advocates from political influence, and his lawsuit against the state remains unresolved.
A career employee with the state Agency for Health Care Administration, Crochet had been recommended to Scott by the very industry groups he was to police, and elder advocates dogged his career with claims that he was deliberately undermining his agency’s authority.
About two years ago, many of the program’s long-time volunteers resigned, saying Crochet had dramatically changed the group’s policies, banning volunteer inspectors from looking around nursing homes or assisted living facilities for evidence of decrepit conditions. Under the new rules, ombudsmen were allowed only to speak with long-term care residents.
Critics also complained when, in 2011 and 2012, Crochet participated in a task force appointed to reform ALFs by voting largely with the industry representatives on the panel, and against the proposals of elder advocates.
Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat who then headed the state Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, and who is now running for governor, called Crochet’s credentials as an elder advocate “questionable” at the time, saying he “didn’t represent the best interests of residents during debate over legislation to protect residents.”
As Crochet appeared to have the support of the Scott administration when he steered his group toward more conciliation with the industry, it is highly unlikely the ire of elder advocates had any bearing on his suspension.
Records suggest his estrangement from the department he helped lead is serious.
The July 26 memo from Corley places Crochet under virtual house arrest during business hours, and other correspondence forbids him from speaking with anyone associated with the department.
“You are directed to remain at your residence during your normally assigned working hours, Monday through Friday,” the memo states. “Your lunch period will be your ordinary scheduled one. You are to call in daily in the morning and report to” the agency’s director of internal and external affairs. “You will call out in the same manner at the end of every working day. If you fail to call in and out as directed, you will be charged leave without pay.”