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Judge blasts Florida's prison system over secret negotiations

TALLAHASSEE — An "appalled" state judge said Thursday that Florida's prison system "blatantly violated the public trust" by secretly negotiating with a new firm to provide for inmates' mental health.

Leon County Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield said the actions by the Department of Corrections were "at best, offensive, and at worst, illegal" in its secret dealings with Correctional Medical Services of St. Louis.

But the judge denied the request by the current contractor, MHM Correctional Services, for a temporary injunction. MHM wanted to block the award of a five-year contract to CMS through a 120-day purchase order that starts July 1.

The judge said MHM still has legal remedies because it has a bid protest pending before a state hearing officer.

He added that the public interest would not be served by a court injunction because MHM's contract with the prison system expires June 30. To prevent the state from doing business with CMS "would cause confusion, disorder and produce public injury that outweighs the individual right to the relief sought," the judge wrote in a seven-page order.

The Department of Corrections is directly under the supervision of Gov. Charlie Crist, who appoints the agency's secretary, Walt McNeil.

In February, the state received four proposals for mental health services for 18,000 inmates in a region from Homestead to Fort Pierce. Many of those inmates have serious mental disorders and receive psychotropic drugs.

The prison system determined that all four companies failed to meet its criteria, and then began secret negotiations with CMS, even though its offer was $5 million higher than MHM's, the judge wrote.

Sheffield was particularly critical of a decision by the state to back-date an official document by 13 days that set the CMS purchase order in motion, and then "engaging in an old-fashioned shell game of calling a short-term contract with the same company as is currently involved in a bid dispute a 'purchase order.' "

MHM attorney Chris Kise, a former legal adviser to Crist as both governor and attorney general, said: "The people lost today due to the worst abuse of power imaginable. The department engaged in secret negotiations, blatant violations of the public trust and unconscionable practices, then hid behind the very laws designed to protect the people."

Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose office represented the prison system, had no immediate comment.

A spokeswoman for McNeil said the agency had not yet seen Sheffield's order.

Sheffield was elected to the circuit bench in 2008. The candidate he defeated, Lisa Raleigh, was the assistant attorney general representing the prison system in the case.

At a hearing last week, Sheffield raised that issue, and Raleigh said she did not think it presented a conflict of interest.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Judge blasts Florida's prison system over secret negotiations 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2009 11:40pm]
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