TALLAHASSEE — At a time when state employees face travel restrictions to save money, Florida's top juvenile justice official racked up $44,000 on travel — much of it for commercial flights between his office in the capital and St. Petersburg, where his family lives.
Frank Peterman, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, has flown at taxpayer expense 68 times between Tampa and Tallahassee since taking office in February 2008, at a cost of nearly $20,000. Many flights left Tallahassee on Thursday or Friday and brought him back to Tallahassee on the following Tuesday.
Peterman defended his travel as a legitimate and necessary way to get away from the bureaucratic atmosphere of Tallahassee and close to his staff members and young clients, who are concentrated in seven urban counties, including Pinellas.
"I need to be out and around and see how to create better programs," Peterman said. "When it comes to trying to create more community-based programs, it does require travel. I've got to get out and get where the people are, and I don't know any other way to do that."
In contrast, Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil, who oversees the statewide system of prisons, spent about $14,000 in travel in the same period of time as the review of Peterman's travel. The prison system has a budget more than three times larger than Peterman's agency.
Roy Miller, president and founder of the Children's Campaign Inc., an advocacy group, said Peterman's extensive travel to and from his hometown is a troubling sign that he is not spending enough time advocating for more money and programs with the state Legislature.
"We need a secretary full time in Tallahassee fighting the fight for juvenile justice," Miller said. "It's kind of disturbing that dollars that could have been spent on children appear to have been redirected to accommodate a secretary who wants to live in a city other than where his office is located."
State Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Winter Haven Republican who is the Senate's chief budget writer, said of Peterman's travel habits: "That's suspect." But he said he didn't know enough about the circumstances to comment in detail.
Concerned about the possibility of wasteful practices by state employees, Alexander has asked all agencies to produce records on travel, cell phone use and other expenses.
At the same time, Gov. Charlie Crist's chief of staff, Shane Strum, issued a memorandum to all agency heads Thursday, urging them to limit travel expenses, such as by sharing rental cars and staying in the most economical hotels available.
"Please be mindful that travel must be critical to your agency's mission," Strum's memo said.
Peterman's travel expenses are in about 800 pages of documents the agency provided to the Times/Herald from a routine public records request.
Peterman, 47, was born and raised in St. Petersburg, and his wife and four children live there, where the family owns a home. The children range in age from 6 to 17. Peterman also owns a townhouse in Tallahassee, where he earns $120,000 a year as secretary of the juvenile justice agency.
When he's in St. Petersburg, Peterman said, he sometimes works at DJJ's juvenile probation office in the Wildwood Service Center, where 59 agency employees work. DJJ has about 4,800 full-time employees and a budget of about $619 million.
Peterman's travel expenses during his 20-month tenure also include $7,600 for hotel rooms, nearly $2,500 in airport parking fees, including the occasional use of a short-term parking lot at Tampa's airport, and $3,785 for gasoline and maintenance costs on a state-owned car.
On June 17, 2008, Peterman stayed at the Ocean Point Hotel in Miami Beach, where the nightly rate was $199. He was there for a meeting of the Davis Productivity Awards, which honor government workers who find innovative ways to save money.
He has attended five out-of-state conferences: two in Washington, and one each in Charlotte, N.C., New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Under a standing policy, only out-of-state travel requires advance approval by the governor's office.
Peterman's travel has averaged $1,844 a month for every month he has held his post. The amount is roughly equal to the monthly salary of a senior clerk at the Department of Environmental Protection or a customer service representative at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Peterman served for seven years in the state House as a Democrat from St. Petersburg before Crist appointed him to head the juvenile justice agency nearly two years ago.
Peterman was a keynote speaker Monday in Tampa at the Justice Summit 2009, sponsored by the Collins Center for Public Policy. He spoke of the need for more early intervention programs to steer troubled kids back on course.
"We realized people make mistakes, and those mistakes are an opportunity to refine and develop their character, which is still being formed," Peterman said. "As secretary of the department, I have and will continue to advocate for funding for early-intervention services."
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.