TALLAHASSEE — A highly critical state report released Tuesday night finds Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman ran up $25,000 in questionable travel and should reimburse taxpayers for those expenses.
The report by Gov. Charlie Crist's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, concludes Peterman's frequent flights between Tallahassee and Tampa were not adequately documented. She concluded that the lack of paperwork and corroborating testimony "does not support his statement" that the travel was necessary.
"Evidence does not dispel the appearance that Peterman's travel to and from the St. Petersburg area was for his own convenience," the report says. "We recommend corrective action be taken including, but not limited to, obtaining reimbursement to the state for travel not fully and completely justified as official state business."
Peterman, 47, told the Times/Herald that he would repay the state for all questionable travel.
"I want to do whatever I can to reimburse whatever the appropriate amount is," Peterman said. "Nothing I've done has been intentional. I did what I thought at the time was part of my job."
The report comes as Crist is emphasizing the need for the state to cut expenses and "live within our means" to bridge a budget deficit of nearly $3 billion in the coming year.
"It's pretty concerning to me," Crist told the Times/Herald Tuesday night at the Governor's Mansion. "We're trying to work out a solution to this situation, and I'm hopeful that we can resolve it in a positive way."
Crist said a repayment by Peterman would have to be in a "lump sum," which Peterman said was appropriate. He said he has no plans to resign.
The inspector general's review was prompted by a Times/Herald report in November that showed Peterman spent $44,000 on travel since becoming secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice in February 2008.
He has traveled frequently to St. Petersburg, where his family lives and where he continues to serve as pastor of the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church and earns a $29,000 salary. He owns two houses in St. Petersburg and a town house in Tallahassee.
The inspector general found that Peterman's trips between Tampa and Tallahassee between February 2008 and November 2009 cost $24,344.58.
Peterman's travel bills include $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.
Investigators interviewed Crist's top aides, who said they repeatedly warned Peterman to stop flying at taxpayer expense so often. But the flights continued even after a directive reminded all agency heads to travel as cheaply as possible and only when it was "mission critical."
Miguel and her staff interviewed 18 people, including Peterman's chief of staff, Kelly Layman; Crist's former chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg; and former deputy chief of staff Lori Rowe, who supervised Peterman and who advised him to find a home in Tallahassee as quickly as possible.
"Rowe said she counseled Peterman repeatedly including advising him that he should drive versus fly. Rowe said that Peterman repeatedly disregarded her counsel," the report says.
Peterman said he traveled frequently to DJJ's district office in St. Petersburg to meet with staff members and families of troubled children from one of the seven urban centers with the highest juvenile crime rates.
Chief of staff Layman described Peterman's work schedule in St. Petersburg as "not robust" and that he "usually did not answer his cellular phone when she called him," the report stated.
Peterman earns $120,000 a year as DJJ secretary, overseeing 4,800 full-time employees and a $619 million budget. The agency provides prevention and treatment for troubled children and runs the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, whose 100-year history of abuse has been chronicled by the St. Petersburg Times.
Peterman served seven years in the state House as a Democrat from St. Petersburg before he joined the Crist administration. He is one of a handful of Democratic agency heads.
In January 2009, Crist's office issued a belt-tightening edict to all state agencies to restrict travel to trips that are "critical" to the agency's mission. Lawmakers included a similar decree in last year's budget. Days before Peterman's travel habits made headlines, Crist's chief of staff, Shane Strum, issued another plea to curtail travel.
Peterman said Tuesday night that since the investigation began in November, he's been driving a state car between Tallahassee and St. Petersburg, explaining: "It is obviously what needs to happen."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.