TALLAHASSEE -- The constant volume of suspicious inmate deaths in Florida's prisons prompted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to ask legislators Tuesday for 17 additional investigators and $3.4 million.
The money, which was not included in Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget, is needed to allow the agency to comply with a newly updated agreement between FDLE and the Florida Department of Corrections, said Jennifer Cook Pritt, FDLE deputy commissioner.
Under the agreement, signed by new FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen and DOC Secretary Julie Jones earlier this month, FDLE must investigate all prison deaths in which medical personnel are not in attendance to determine if criminal activity was involved.
FDLE expects to investigate at least 60 prison deaths next year, based on the fact the agency investigated 15 suspicious deaths in the last quarter of 2014, Pritt said.
The new "memorandum of understanding" updates a previous agreement between former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey and former DOC Secretary Michael Crews, which required law enforcement to investigate all deaths, even those in which inmates died of cancer or other natural causes.
As a result of the first agreement, Bailey recommended 39 additional investigators be hired by FDLE at a cost of about $6.5 million. He was asked to resign by Gov. Rick Scott in December. The new agreement would cost less, Pritt said.
The agency is also asking for $1.8 million to hire 14 additional agents to assist local law enforcement in investigating the increasing number of "use of force" cases. In the last five years, use of force investigations have risen by 29 percent and the increase is expected to continue, she said.
The new memorandum of understanding was signed on the same day DOC issued its "confidentiality agreement" preventing inspectors at the agency from speaking up about concerns relating to current and former investigations, even those that are public record.
Critics of the gag order have suggested the new policy is being used to silence critics within the department but Jones has said it is intended to preserve the integrity of investigations.
The same questions arose Tuesday with the new memorandum of understanding: Will it silence critics or expose criticism?
Under the current system, when senior investigators in DOC discovered prison supervisors allegedly covered-up wrongdoing in the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo in 2010 and FDLE had not interviewed key witnesses, they notified FDLE, which reopened the case.
The case is now being investigated by FDLE and the FBI and the DOC inspectors have filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department.
Under the new agreement, those investigators would have to seek approval from their supervisors before a case can be referred to FDLE, even if they believe their supervisors are covering up the case. Any investigator who goes directly to FDLE could be in violation of the confidentiality agreement, and subject to an internal affairs investigation.
The new memorandum also allows DOC's inspector general to decide whether certain cases -- those related to organized criminal activity such as contraband and fraud -- will be referred to FDLE.
In an interview with the Herald/Times, Jones and Assistant FDLE Commissioner Don Ladner defended the new Memorandum of Understanding and downplayed the possibility that it could be used to silence officials who accuse their colleagues of cover-up.
Inspectors are sworn officers and "they have an obligation" to come forward "because they are there to assist FDLE basically at their bidding," Jones said.
If they contact FDLE: "We will arrange to meet that person and protect their identity," Ladner said.
He emphasized, however, information obtained in the case must be done in a way that "cannot jeopardize a criminal investigation."
The House committee had no discussion of the FDLE budget request.