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Complaints, accusations roil Florida's disaster planning agency

TALLAHASSEE — Turmoil and finger-pointing within the state's disaster planning agency intensified Wednesday — with the recently resigned general counsel accusing top officials of wasting taxpayer dollars and violating state laws for bids and contracts.

Meanwhile, the former agency leader who resigned abruptly Monday amid earlier allegations of misconduct and misspending says the governor's office misled, deceived and intimidated him into quitting his $110,000-a-year post.

Ruben Almaguer, who had been interim director of the state's emergency management division since longtime director Craig Fugate left in May, says Gov. Charlie Crist's chief of staff and deputy chief of staff never gave him detailed information about the accusations against him.

He says they improperly characterized one employee's signed letter to Crist as a whistle-blower complaint backed up by several of his staffers.

"Why would the Governor's Office withhold information from me and deny me my right to know what was said against me?" Almaguer said Wednesday. "They really misled me. I was deceived."

Division bureau chief Gwen Keenan, hired when Fugate was still director, wrote to Crist in November outlining her concerns over Almaguer's conduct and leadership.

Keenan said Almaguer made questionable purchases on items including airfare and technology "gadgets" while circumventing state and federal rules for hiring and contract bids.

She described him as arrogant and overbearing.

Almaguer met with Crist's chief of staff Shane Strum and deputy chief of staff Kathy Mears on Dec. 7 to discuss the allegations, but he said he did not see Keenan's letter until the Times/Herald published it online Monday.

Mears said Almaguer was encouraged to resign "because he was interim director and these reports were troubling. He is an at-will employee, and there were issues."

Mears said the letter from Keenan is not an official whistle-blower complaint. But the Governor's Office "had indications" that an employee in the emergency management division had a lawyer and was ready to file a whistle-blower complaint.

No complaint was filed. And on Tuesday, Crist said he regards the matter as settled.

But in an indication of the animosity and conflicts within the state's disaster planning department, former general counsel Tom Congdon has since filed his own whistle-blower complaint.

Congdon resigned last month, effective Jan. 25.

In a copy of the whistle-blower complaint obtained by the Times/Herald, Congdon accuses longtime division official David Halstead of mismanaging employees and skirting state laws for contracts bids.

After Almaguer resigned Monday, Crist named Halstead to serve temporarily in the division's No. 1 spot.

Congdon says Halstead and other top division officials have neglected ongoing concerns over falsified employee time sheets and problems with a more than half-million-dollar software system meant to track the emergency supplies.

"I have warned Mr. Halstead that the division may have wasted significant expenditures on a system that may never fully function or function at all," Cong­don wrote in the complaint. He also accuses Halstead and other administrators of steering contracts to favored vendors and companies.

Congdon resigned Dec. 18, but he says he did so only because Halstead forced him to pledge "loyalty" to Halstead or resign.

Monday morning before Almaguer resigned, Congdon asked him to allow him to rescind that resignation.

But Mears said Almaguer had no authority to do so, and Congdon's resignation — effective later this month — remains intact.

Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchio@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Complaints, accusations roil Florida's disaster planning agency 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 10:42pm]
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