TALLAHASSEE -- Skeptical that Gov. Rick Scott's administration can conduct an independent review of abuse allegations at the Department of Corrections, a bipartisan group of state senators is conducting its own inquiry.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will grill Gov. Rick Scott's newly appointed prisons secretary, Julie Jones, at a hearing on Tuesday, and other senators have independently sought answers after the Miami Herald began an investigation last year into questionable deaths of several inmates in Florida prisons.
Records show that the state's prison system had its deadliest year in 2014 -- inmate deaths climbed at least 13 percent -- as Scott's push to privatize prison medicine resulted in a spike in medically related deaths and the system's culture allowed for prisoner abuse by guards to go unchallenged in many cases.
The U.S. Department of Justice is gathering evidence for a possible investigation into whether the Florida DOC violated the constitutional rights of inmates. Meanwhile, the state agency assigned to investigate the prison troubles, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has been beset with its own problems.
The governor's forced ouster of former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, and the governor's office meddling in removing a former investigator at DOC, have raised questions about FDLE's ability to independently investigate allegations of inmate abuse and cover-ups in the prison system.
"A total investigation of DOC -- a prosecutor's involvement -- may be need
ed to get to the bottom of what's going on,'' said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. He said he hopes to get candid answers from state officials but has realized there are "500 pieces to this puzzle."
According to documents obtained by the Herald/Times, Gov. Scott's office permitted the Department of Corrections to oust investigator David Folsom from his job in 2013 as Folsom was calling attention to the agency's failure to report widespread abuse by guards.
They placed him on leave without giving him a reason. The governor's then-deputy chief of staff, Geoffrey Becker, offered Folsom a job at the Department of Highway Safety and promised him a promotion. Folsom took the job, but the promotion never materialized and Folsom is still seeking comparable work.
Folsom was deputy inspector general and chief of law enforcement, in charge of investigating complaints of abuse by guards at state prisons. He found issues with 85 cases, many of which should have been reported to FDLE for alleged violationsbut were not, sources close to the investigations said.
The failure of the DOC to turn over documents, and a culture that encourages cover-ups, has eroded legislators' confidence in the ability of the governor and his agency to clean up the system, several senators told the Herald/Times.
"We're in a situation where trust needs to be restored and it needs to be restored quickly," said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Republican and former assistant state attorney from Green Cove Springs.
Bradley filed legislation to create a full-time, independently run oversight commission to inspect and clean up the Department of Corrections.
"There needs to be a completely independent body that is separate from anything in the executive branch to look into having the ability to access any documents available at any time,'' he said.
He wants the commission "to have real-time review of incidents" and "the ability to investigate if there is probable cause,'' he said.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said she considers the DOC's culture too cozy. "We've got to break up some friendships in order to make some change,'' she said.
Evers said he is not satisfied that the agency has asked enough questions about the treatment of inmates in its custody.
"The information I have right now would lead me to believe there may be cover-ups at some institutions at the lower level, but I'm confident it leads to Tallahassee,'' he said.
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, a lawyer and member of the Senate appropriations committee that oversees prisons, has been conducting his own interviews with current and former prison employees and found that the same DOC investigators assigned to probe abuse in the prisons are dependent on prison wardens to provide them with references they need to get promotions.
"It has come to my attention they may still use wardens for recommendation letters in order to assist in their advancement at the DOC,'' Soto told the Herald/Times. "If you have this system of favors, it's hard for them to be independent in practice."
Another potential conflict has emerged in Tallahassee's close-knit law enforcement community: A lead FBI agent in charge of investigating allegations of excessive force and suspicious inmate deaths in Florida prisons, Teresa Gustafson, is married to Donald Ladner, the FDLE agent who was promoted last week to be the agency's top deputy, overseeing the FDLE's prison investigations.
The decision to promote Ladner was one of the first made by the FDLE's new boss, Rick Swearingen, who was Scott's hand-picked successor to the ousted Bailey.
According to a whistleblower complaint filed in Leon County circuit court in July, Gustafson began investigating Franklin County Correctional Institute last year over the 2010 death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was found lifeless after being gassed repeatedly by guards in an isolation cell after pleading for medical help.
Gustafson is also investigating allegations that guards were beating inmates and trafficking in contraband, according to sources close to the probe.
The U.S. Department of Justice will not comment, and the FDLE says it sees no conflict-of-interest in the relationship.
"The FDLE requested the involvement of the U.S Attorney's Office, and this case is a joint FDLE and FBI investigation overseen by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice,'' said Gretl Plessinger, FDLE spokeswoman. "Assistant Commissioner Ladner has complete faith in the FDLE agents working this case to conduct a complete and impartial investigation."
Evers said he is not convinced that the Ladner/Gustafson situation poses a conflict.
"It depends on if they're trying to do the right thing or cover it up and make less of what it is," he said. "As long as the truth comes out, I have no problem with who is related to who. But if they start a cover-up, I'm going to get to the bottom of it and I will get some authority involved."
-- Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas