TALLAHASSEE — After being chastised by the federal government for intimidating volunteer advocates for the elderly, the head of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs agreed to loosen its control over the activists.
Secretary Charles Corley told a Senate committee Tuesday that he will follow the recommendations of a federal report to allow the long-term care ombudsman the ability to talk to legislators directly, conduct independent press conferences, and serve as an independent advocate of the elderly — as required by federal law.
But Corley stopped short of agreeing to sever complete control of the Long Term Care Ombudsman program, saying that because the state relies on federal funding for the program, it must maintain an oversight role.
"To the extent that it's allowable in the law, I would not oppose it,'' he said.
That didn't suit the committee chairwoman, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who called Corley before her committee in the wake of the blistering federal report that accused the governor's office and his appointees of meddling to muzzle critics of the nursing home and assisted living industry.
Storms said she will file legislation for next session that makes the Long Term Care Ombudsman program completely independent from the Department of Elder Affairs, which has authority to appoint or terminate ombudsmen who are supposed to have the authority to criticize department rules.
In its 31-page report, the U.S. Administration on Aging concluded that political pressures from the office of Gov. Rick Scott and state elder affairs officials had crippled the ability of the elderly advocates to serve as effective, independent advocates for frail elderly and the disabled.
Elder advocates had complained that Scott's office was acting at the behest of industry officials, who served on his transition team and urged him to oust the head of the statewide ombudsman program, Brian Lee. They said that Scott's transition team members also wanted him to tighten the leash on aggressive advocates who submitted complaints about their facilities.
In a letter to Storms on Tuesday, the federal agency said that Florida's practices "improperly control the interactions of the State Ombudsman." It also noted that the pattern had existed for some time and that the governor's office "historically has used orders and intimidation to ensure the cancellation of press conference activities."
The issues first came to light in February, when the ombudsman program's director, Lee, was fired by the Scott administration. Lee's dismissal came shortly after he sent nursing homes a letter requesting ownership and financial information — a request that was withdrawn by the agency after he was fired.
The federal report noted that while Lee's dismissal was within the authority of the newly formed administration, it said the motive should not have been political.
Corley told the committee that Lee's removal had nothing to do with the letter. "I nor anyone had any knowledge that that letter had gone out,'' he said.
He also said that the federal government interviewed his staff but "didn't provide us an opportunity to even discuss their findings."
He said he has submitted a "corrective action" report that will give the new head of the ombudsman program the ability to lobby the Legislature, conduct independent meetings and issue unfettered press releases. But he defended his firing of two volunteers he said conspired to discuss Lee's ouster at a public meeting via e-mail in violation of state open-meetings law.
Marilyn Dos Santos, a Venice resident and former chair of the ombudsman's state council who was one of the people fired by Corley, accused the secretary of "calling all the shots." She said he refused to approve an emergency conference call to discuss the issue and sent out memos prohibiting volunteers from talking to the media.
"Nobody was allowed to do anything unless it crossed his desk,'' she said.
Storms said she believes the new head of the ombudsman program, Jim Crochet, "has his heart in the right place."
"I think they are duly chastisted,'' she said. "The federal government's response took them by surprise."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.