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Investigators says former county commissioner used taxpayer dollars for personal gain

State investigators say Vicki Lopez Lukis, a well-connected former Lee County commissioner now living in South Florida, used her contracts with state juvenile justice administrators for personal gain, buying meals at steakhouses and sushi restaurants, gifts for friends and lawmakers, tickets to a film festival and flowers, spending taxpayer dollars on cell phone roaming charges in Europe, and paying off staffers' parking tickets.

Using state money, a report says, she purchased office furniture and computer equipment — at a cost of thousands of dollars — from a company owned by her husband and son. And, documents say, she "falsified" records to justify being paid for services that weren't rendered.

The report issued by the Department of Juvenile Justice's inspector general in June said at least $111,000 meant to provide services for delinquent girls was misused. The state's financial watchdog recommended that DJJ get its money back.

But just a week later, the juvenile justice department — now headed by Lopez Lukis' longtime friend, Wansley Walters — inked a new contract with Lopez Lukis' group, the Girls Advocacy Project. The state has yet to ask for a refund.

In an e-mail to the Miami Herald, Lopez Lukis insisted that neither she nor her colleagues at GAP had done anything wrong.

"None of the expenditures were prohibited," she said, because GAP's contracts with the state were paid as a "lump sum," and not reimbursement as fees-for-service. "The language of the contract DID NOT expressly prohibit any of the expenditures made by GAP," she wrote.

"I can assure you that no one associated with GAP used its funds for anything other than that associated with its operations. Indeed, independent financial audits of GAP's financial records have confirmed this," Lopez Lukis wrote in the email.

On Thursday, after Lopez Lukis complained to the state that GAP had been given no chance to respond to the report, juvenile justice administrators issued a statement to the Miami Herald saying the months-old report was being reclassified as a "draft" and is subject to change in the future.

In an email Thursday to the juvenile justice department's deputy secretary, Lopez Lukis said she had "never received" the inspector general's report until the Herald provided her a copy. However, Lopez Lukis was aware of a related investigation by the Department of Financial Services' Office of Fiscal Integrity, a state taxpayer watchdog agency that often is asked to determine whether a state contractor has violated the law.

The fiscal integrity office began a review of DJJ's inspector general report on Jan. 29, 2010, and concluded in a May 24 memo that, while no "criminal activity" had occurred, a GAP contract contained "obvious discrepancies," and DJJ should "recover funds from the GAP."

Walters, who was appointed juvenile justice secretary by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year, also declined to discuss the investigation, though she did email a statement to the Herald.

"I am committed to ensuring that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice conducts business transparently and ethically," Walters wrote. "The DJJ Inspector General's report regarding the contract in question addressed concerns pre-dating my appointment as secretary. Nevertheless, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, I recused myself from further involvement."

Juvenile justice administrators renewed the contract days after the inspector general's scathing report, Walters said, because "the contract was up for renewal and there were no legal issues that prevented us from signing it."

At the outset, financial watchdogs wrote, GAP's contracts with the state were treated with enormous deference.

"We found a prevailing perception among DJJ contract staff that contracts like the GAP contracts are 'hands-off' because they are legislators' 'special member projects' which are not always deliberated in legislative committees," the fiscal integrity office memo said. "This perception may have contributed to the failure of DJJ contract staff to write a proper contract and a lack of responsible monitoring of expenditures."

It is unclear what role Lopez Lukis now plays with the advocacy project, and the Miami-Dade woman declined to specify her involvement. Corporate records, as well as the GAP website, say she is the group's executive director. Lopez Lukis' website says she "serves as a pro bono consultant."

Vicki Lopez Lukis and her husband Sylvester Lukis share an impressive Rolodex, containing the names of some of the state's most influential civic and business leaders. A 1997 three-part Miami New Times series characterized the couple as "a young political starlet" and "the next king of Miami."

The two met when she sat on the Lee County Commission. Federal prosecutors maintained that Lopez Lukis, who then used the surname Lopez Wolfe, had an affair with Sylvester Lukis, and did his bidding on the county commission. Her public positions benefited at least two of Lukis' most lucrative clients, prosecutors said, including a company seeking a $200 million contract to build a trash incinerator.

She was convicted of one count of mail fraud in 1997 and given a 27-month sentence. After serving part of the sentence in federal prison, she had her sentence commuted by then-President Bill Clinton. Last February, a federal judge in Fort Myers exonerated Lopez Lukis, saying her conviction was based on an erroneous interpretation of a controversial law targeting influence-peddling, the "honest services" statute.

In the ensuing years, Lopez Lukis — she married the lobbyist — parlayed her prison time into a crusade on behalf of former inmates seeking a smoother transition back to jobs and families, and female inmates of prisons and juvenile lockups.

It was in her role as prison reform advocate that Lopez Lukis approached Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman.

Lederman, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Miami juvenile court bench, had created GAP in 1999 as a way to provide services — such as domestic violence and sex abuse counseling — to girls in the Miami lockup. Around 2000, after Lopez Lukis was released from prison, she asked Lederman to allow her to work as a GAP volunteer.

Lopez Lukis collected $40,000 in consulting fees with GAP in the fall of 2006. Later, she became GAP's executive director, records show, and she began an effort to take the group statewide. But in June 2008, Lederman filed a complaint against Lopez Lukis with the Department of Juvenile Justice's inspector general alleging that Lopez Lukis was using GAP funds to "subsidize her Junior League activities and to finance trips to Tallahassee," where she is also a registered lobbyist.

A breakdown of Lopez Lukis' GAP expenses drops a host of powerful names and positions, including a $73 meal at the Cheesecake Factory in Miami where the purpose of the meeting was the "Tallahassee Senate Committee" and a Feb. 29, 2008, $66 meal Lopez Lukis shared with an aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Walters, then the head of Miami's Juvenile Assessment Center.

In his two-page report, state financial services investigator Bill Geier wrote that such expenditures, by a registered lobbyist, "give, at minimum, appearances of lobbying activity" — which is forbidden with taxpayer dollars.

The juvenile justice inspector general also turned up evidence that Lopez Lukis "falsified invoices" to suggest the program was rendering services to youths it didn't serve. "We will adjust GAP Miami invoices regardless of the number of girls served in order to invoice the remaining balance of the … contract," Lopez Lukis wrote in May 2007 in an email to a colleague in Miami, the report said. The Department of Financial Services' Office of Fiscal Integrity determined that no crime had been committed.

Investigators says former county commissioner used taxpayer dollars for personal gain 11/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 11:32pm]
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