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Florida to pay prison whistleblowers $800,000 to end lawsuit

Julie Jones, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, which has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by three prison investigators who said there was a cover-up of inmate abuse at a North Florida prison. The FDC also agreed to end lawsuits by three other agency whistleblowers. The agency agreed to pay $800,000, including $250,000 in attorneys fees. Jones had previously told a Senate committee that the whistleblowers were "a group of disgruntled employees." [SCOTT KEELER    |  TIMES]

Julie Jones, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, which has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by three prison investigators who said there was a cover-up of inmate abuse at a North Florida prison. The FDC also agreed to end lawsuits by three other agency whistleblowers. The agency agreed to pay $800,000, including $250,000 in attorneys fees. Jones had previously told a Senate committee that the whistleblowers were "a group of disgruntled employees." [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]

TALLAHASSEE — Years after three prison investigators came forward with evidence of inmate abuse and cover-ups at the Florida Department of Corrections, the state has agreed to settle a retaliation lawsuit — and pay them $800,000.

The prison agency also agreed to end lawsuits by three other department whistleblowers, closing a chapter in what has been one of the most tumultuous eras in state prison history.

The agreement, filed in Leon County Circuit Court on Tuesday, exonerates investigators of the FDC inspector general's office, Doug Glisson, Aubrey Land and John Ulm, after they came forward with evidence that they believed an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution, Randall Jordan-Aparo, had been gassed to death by prison guards. Jordan-Aparo's family has filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the state.

The department listed Jordan-Aparo's death as from "natural causes" until the investigators started asking questions and found errors in the way the investigation was handled.

Their charges were not only ignored by their boss, then-inspector general Jeffery Beasley, but Gov. Rick Scott's inspector general, Melinda Miguel, refused to given them whistleblower protection and refused to investigate.

After they attempted to bring their concerns forward by testifying under oath before a Florida state Senate committee, they said Beasley systematically tried to discredit them by concocting charges, ordering numerous internal investigations and even forging signatures, potentially threatening their law enforcement status.

The agency does not agree to the allegations but does agree to pay Glisson, Land and Ulm each $133,333 and drop all pending internal investigations. Glisson and Ulm will also receive more than $4,100 in wages lost from a recent demotion, in return for agreeing to leave the agency.

The settlement also ends the retaliation claims by employees James Padgett, David Clark and Christina Bullins, who each will receive $50,000. The attorneys who handled the case, Steven R. Andrews and his son, Ryan Andrews, will be paid $250,001.

"They didn't offer up this settlement because they liked us," said Glisson, a supervisor whose last day at the agency he has worked at for more than 20 years will be Wednesday. "They really didn't want this to go to a jury trial."

For Aubrey Land, whose last day will also be Wednesday after 33 years in law enforcement, "it was the worst three years of my life," he said.

He, Glisson and Ulm were moved out of their offices and put under internal investigations for trumped up allegations that the settlement now ends.

"We had to live with the threat of losing our jobs and our ability to support our family," Land said. "You have to sit there and explain to your children why this is happening."

The settlement is also a rebuke to FDC Secretary Julie Jones who told a Senate committee last year that there would be no retaliation against whistleblowers but she also called them "a group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interests of the department at heart."

"How does she reconcile that she said no one would be retaliated against, that the whistleblowers would not be retaliated against, and yet the state just paid $800,000 in retaliation claims?" asked Ryan Andrews, one of their lawyers.

In a lawsuit filed in May, the inspectors alleged that the governor's office has wielded influence over agency investigations and named not only Miguel, the governor's chief investigator, but his former top lawyer, Pete Antonacci, who now serves as executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

Glisson and Ulm also alleged that Beasley ordered Ulm to close an investigation into the department's former food vendor, U.S. Foods, after the company was accused of serving inmates tainted meat and engaging in deceitful billing.

Ulm claimed in 2015 that Antonacci, who had been U.S. Foods' lobbyist, should have been questioned in the investigation because he may have been instrumental in keeping the company's $222 million contract in effect in Florida despite the allegations that the company inflated food prices, filed fraudulent freight invoices and may have colluded with FDC employees. U.S. Foods settled the state's charges against it for $15.5 million last year.

Glisson and Ulm also alleged that the governor's office was instrumental in dictating the release of sensitive reports relating to their allegations.

For example, they uncovered a handwritten note from Miguel, who appeared to be ready to release the report clearing them of any wrongdoing just weeks before the governor's re-election, but was told to hold off.

"Bo said he spoke to Pete A," said the note, signed by Miguel on Oct. 15, 2014. It was an apparent reference to Antonacci and a staff member in the executive office of the governor. "... I said that I plan to work with them but I need to independently issue the report. I understand things better if I'm given a rationale but not hearing a rationale makes me have to guess & outsiders will only construe that I'm sitting on this pending the election — which we can't afford to do."

The settlement was filed the same day a prison riot was quelled at Franklin Correctional, the fourth one this year. The agency has complained to legislators that its facilities are dangerously understaffed.

FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady said the settlement will be paid in part by the agency's insurance policy and the remainder, $320,209, will come from the agency's administrative trust fund.

Andrews said that if the agency had agreed to stop the retaliation a year ago, much of this could have been avoided. Glisson, Land and Ulm agreed to drop the charges in exchange for the state's finding them different jobs at another state agency and releasing them from the investigations, he said.

"We agreed to waive the attorneys fees except for the costs — about $25,000," Andrews said. FDC refused. The agency declined to comment on the settlement.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@tampabay.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

Florida to pay prison whistleblowers $800,000 to end lawsuit 11/29/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 6:50pm]
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