TAMPA - The University of South Florida is continuing to push Secretary of State Ken Detzner to rule whether college researchers can excavate human remains at a former Panhandle boarding school suspected of housing unmarked graves.
USF Deputy General Counsel Gerard Solis wrote Detzner today asking him to reconsider his conclusion that the Secretary of State's office does not have the authority to issue archaeological permits to exhume human remains under the circumstances detailed by the college.
Researchers from the Tampa school have been conducting research at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, where wards have told of beatings, abuse and residents gone missing. Some relatives of boys who died at the school say they want remains removed and reinterred at family plots.
Detzner said last week that his office's Bureau of Archaeological Research is limited to granting research permits "restricted to the recovery of objects of historical or archeological value, not human remains." He said he was therefore "unable to take any action on your permit request."
USF now is asking, in effect, for Detzner to approve or deny the permit rather than leaving the situation in limbo. Should he approve it, USF would begin research into what it says are dozens of unmarked graves on the school property; if it were to be denied, the university could then file for an administrative hearing on the issue before an administrative law judge.
"I'm surprised that the state is questioning their jurisdiction given that this is state land and the process clearly is within the Division of Historical Resources," said E. Christian Wells, a USF professor and one of the leaders of the research team.
The university's five-page letter to Detzner rebuts the secretary's position that he cannot rule on such a permit. The Secretary of State's office said it had received the letter and is reviewing it for response.
Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who has taken up investigation of the Dozier deaths as a cause, blasted Gov. Rick Scott on the issue during a news conference.
He said Scott has authority to allow the excavation and that the refusal by Detzner, a Scott appointee, is "a dodge." The senator said he might seek federal intervention if the state's refusal stands.
"This is all being run by the governor," Nelson said. "He controls the Department of State. If they wanted to do it, that's all the governor would have to say."
Nelson said the letter from the USF deputy general counsel "just made mincemeat out of the state's argument."
Asked whether he would seek intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice in the case if the state doesn't allow the investigation to proceed, he said, "I certainly will consider that, absolutely. I'm not going to let this one go. It's the least we can do."
The Dozier issue is only the latest of a series on which Nelson has criticized Scott, but in the news conference, Nelson continued his reluctance to discuss whether he would consider running against Scott in 2014, as some Democrats have urged him to do.