Thursday, May 24, 2018
Politics

DJJ probe of Miami group bungled, state says

An investigation by state juvenile justice administrators into a Miami group that was paid hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars to mentor girls in detention centers was sloppy, incomplete and drew conclusions without sufficient evidence, a state report says.

The Office of the Chief Inspector General, which reports to Gov. Rick Scott, released a 123-page report on the Girls Advocacy Project, or GAP, a juvenile justice service provider that has been at the center of a four-year dispute over juvenile justice contracting and expenditures.

The report took nine months to complete, following a three-year investigation by the state Department of Juvenile Justice that, last year, concluded GAP used contracts with the youth corrections agency for personal gain, for instance buying meals at a steakhouse and tickets to a film festival and paying off staffers' parking tickets.

The Chief Inspector General's Office cleared the Girls Advocacy Project, or GAP's, former director, Vicki Lopez Lukis of any wrongdoing related to perhaps the investigation's most serious allegation, that Lopez Lukis had falsified invoices that were submitted to DJJ. The report concluded that "no evidence was identified or found to indicate that any invoices were falsified or that contractual services were not delivered."

The report left undetermined whether the majority of the allegations concerning GAP were true or false. The review, the governor's office wrote, was intended only to gauge the quality of DJJ's earlier efforts — which it found lacking — not to investigate the case anew.

DJJ's former inspector general, Mary Roe Eubanks, "failed to thoroughly and sufficiently" investigate many of the claims against GAP, instead drawing conclusions she lacked the evidence to draw, the new report concludes.

Lopez Lukis did not reply to emails from the Miami Herald.

But in a letter to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, GAP's president, Melissa McKinlay, said agency leaders were "relieved that the (report) has confirmed what we always knew to be the case."

"The DJJ (inspector general) investigation was not conducted in a diligent and complete manner, and reasonable steps were not taken to ensure that sufficient evidence was collected," McKinlay wrote. "GAP remains firm in that it never knowingly or willfully violated any Florida statutes and/or rules."

The brunt of the report's criticism falls on the Department of Juvenile Justice, which, inspectors wrote, executed two contracts with GAP — one for about $375,000 and another for about $1.5 million — that did not specifically forbid the expenditure of taxpayer money on personal items. Though other state documents, including a June 2006 memo from the state's chief financial officer, do specify what expenses are allowable under state contracts, such details were never spelled out in the two contracts.

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, who is a close friend of Lopez Lukis, but was not the agency head when most of the controversy was brewing, issued a lengthy statement outlining a series of steps her agency already has taken to "reform" DJJ's contracting efforts. They include:

• The creation of a fiscal monitoring unit to oversee contract expenditures,

• The development of a "quality control initiative" among contract managers "that ensures contracts are monitored, outstanding issues are addressed and contract managers are maintaining proper documentation,"

• The appointment of a new agency inspector general, Robert Munson, who was a financial crimes investigator, among other things, during a two-decade stint with the U.S. Secret Service.

Eubanks, his predecessor, was allowed to resign from the department in lieu of firing last June after a 25-year career in state government.

GAP's contract with Florida's youth corrections agency was not renewed earlier this year.

Lopez Lukis, in correspondence with the state, and McKinlay had argued strenuously that Eubanks had acted in her investigation with "malice" toward GAP. Eubanks had failed to interview Lopez Lukis or other GAP employees before concluding her investigation, and did not provide a copy of the report for Lopez Lukis' review before completing the probe and allowing it to be released to the public — which state policy requires.

In her report, Miguel wrote that she "did not find sufficient evidence to indicate that the noted deficiencies" in Eubank's effort "were based on malice toward GAP or GAP's employees."

The controversy over GAP began in 2008, when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a veteran of the child welfare judiciary, told DJJ's then-general counsel she had concerns that GAP employees were misusing state taxpayer dollars on items that did not directly benefit delinquent girls, such as lobbying state lawmakers and paying personal cellphone bills — allegations Lopez Lukis denied. DJJ's report on the allegations was released three years later, after investigators with the state Department of Financial Services, who reviewed the probe, concluded in a brief memo that they saw no evidence that GAP had broken any laws. DFS did recommend, however, that juvenile justice administrators seek reimbursement of tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money.

On Nov. 17, 2011, Lopez Lukis asked the governor's top investigator for an independent review of Eubanks' findings, saying the report contained "a multitude of errors and omissions" and that Eubanks' staff had failed to seek her side of the story before releasing it.

From the beginning, Lopez Lukis had said that no language in her contracts barred any of GAP's expenditures.

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