TALLAHASSEE — The state Commission on Ethics has found that Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman Jr. may have "corruptly" misused his position or state resources to pay for frequent taxpayer-funded trips between the state capital and his home in St. Petersburg.
The watchdog agency found probable cause that Peterman violated the code of ethics, which could subject him to a fine. With a new governor set to take office next month, Peterman has resigned as chief of the Department of Juvenile Justice and is likely to be replaced.
Peterman, 48, is a former Democratic state representative from St. Petersburg and a minister who preaches at the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown. Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to run the department in February of 2008.
The investigation was triggered by a citizen's complaint based on a Times/Herald news story in November 2009 that showed Peterman had spent $44,000 on travel in his first 18 months as a state official. Many trips were airplane flights between Tallahassee and Tampa, and Peterman's family continued to live in St. Petersburg while he worked for the state.
The probable cause action against Peterman was somewhat unexpected because the agency's staff recommended a finding of no probable cause, saying there was a lack of evidence that he acted with corrupt intent as the law requires.
"(Peterman's) actions could be categorized as mismanagement or waste in government," advocate or prosecutor Diane Guillemette wrote in her recommendation, "but as the agency head it was part of his position to determine if the travel was necessary. … Consequently, the 'corruption' element of the charge cannot be sustained."
In addition, Peterman has reimbursed the state $25,630 for travel that an internal investigation by the Governor's Office considered excessive or not a justifiable government expense.
With five of the commission's nine members in attendance in a closed-door session last Friday, the panel voted 4-1 to fully pursue an inquiry of Peterman, said Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission.
A more thorough review could take months to complete. If the violation is upheld by the commission, the panel recommends a penalty to the governor, who makes the final decision.
Peterman declined to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Mark Herron, who said of the decision: "It doesn't seem to be an appropriate use of the state's resources, when the case has already been adjudicated and the penalties have been paid."
Last January, Crist's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, issued a critical report that recommended Peterman repay the state as a "corrective action … for travel not fully and completely justified as official state business."
Crist declined to criticize Peterman over the Ethics Commission's finding.
"I want to reserve judgment because probable cause in and of itself doesn't reach to the level of a determination. While it's not a great step, to say the least, it's not a conclusion," Crist said. "We're innocent till proven guilty."
Peterman has remained on the job, earning $120,000 a year, but he switched to commuting by car between the two cities after the story appeared.
Peterman's travel bills included $2,848 in parking charges, $7,430 for hotel rooms and $1,600 in fees to change flight times. The report criticizes his frequent use of short-term airport parking and notes he charged the state $785 for five hotel nights and a rental car for two conferences in Tampa.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (950) 224-7263.