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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: Independence for government watchdogs on the way

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With distrust of government at a fever pitch, it should be reassuring to know that every agency in Florida has an inspector general whose job is to root out fraud, waste and abuse within state government.

IGs can serve a vital role in our fight against public corruption. Their presence in agencies might seem antagonistic to employees and agency heads that cling to a “good old boy” mentality or that don’t believe they need to be accountable for the public resources in their control.

Unfortunately, the current structure might encourage IGs to become too cozy within the agency to be liked, accepted or safe from getting the ax. A watchdog does the job best when he is rewarded for finding the problems, fixing them and preventing future ones from happening, not by looking the other way either voluntarily or involuntarily by bowing to more subtle political pressure such as budget or personnel cuts.

In a 2009 Florida Trend expose, Cynthia Barnett pointed out instances of IGs getting a raw deal for doing their jobs too well or ruffling the wrong political feathers.

Fred Schuknecht served admirably as the IG for the Department of Corrections for eight years, overseeing thousands of department investigations when James Crosby was named its new secretary. Crosby, unhappy with Schuknecht’s ongoing investigation involving his protégé, A.C. Clark, showed him the door. This overt retaliation ended Schuknecht’s 26-year career with the department.

Crosby and Clark both served time in federal prison for a kickback scheme that came to light two years later.

Linda Keen, the IG for the Agency for Health Care Administration, was asked to leave the agency. The new secretary, a former legislator, was unhappy that Keen had written a report that was critical of a Medicaid pilot project that she had sponsored.

Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos asked for the resignation of longtime IG Cecil Bragg. His offense? Doing his job too well.

Bragg moved aggressively against corrupt contractors and employees. His investigations helped bring criminal action against White Construction of Chiefland and Cone Constructors of Tampa, as well as the convictions of former Miami DOT supervisor Donnie Lee Cook and five others for bribery, racketeering and fraud.

In 2010, the 19th Statewide Grand Jury took a look at the need for ethics reform in response to allegations of public corruption and issued a comprehensive report. Among its recommendations was the need to amend the law to give state agency inspectors general more independence.

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, echoed the grand jury’s belief that inspectors general, the public’s watchdogs, need more independence to effectively enhance accountability and integrity in state government.

Despite our best efforts over several years, former state Sen. Mike Fasano and I failed to change the ethics laws to reflect many of the grand jury’s recommendations, including an independent office of inspectors general. The appetite for ethics reform was nonexistent.

With the news media and the public focusing more attention on the need to address public corruption, the Florida Legislature developed an interest. The Legislature passed and the governor just signed HB 1385, which should reduce the influence of state agency heads over the IGs whose job it is to audit and investigate their agencies.

Prior to the law change, state agency heads were able to appoint and remove their IGs, which created built-in conflicts of interest. Now the governor’s chief inspector general (CIG) will make the appointments and can only remove an IG for cause. This reporting change is crucial to allowing the IGs to do their jobs with less fear of retribution from heads of the agencies they investigate. Additionally, the agency head can no longer direct an IG to do an audit; they can only request that one be done. Lastly, the IG will have clear authority to handle personnel matters in his or her office independent of the agency.

Agency heads could still exert influence through the governor’s office, although it would be less direct. For example, they could try to stop an investigation in their agency by convincing the governor’s staff that it might be embarrassing to the administration.

More can and should be done, but these changes should be viewed in a very positive light, and the Legislature and governor should be commended for finally taking a necessary step to empower our government watchdogs and offer them protection from retaliation.

Too bad it’s too late for fine folks like Fred Schuknecht, Linda Keen and Cecil Bragg.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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