TALLAHASSEE — Nearly a year after leaving office, Frank Peterman is still fighting to clear himself of charges that he misused his position as head of Florida's juvenile justice agency through excessive travel paid for by taxpayers.
In two days of hearings last month, two former top aides described Peterman's frequent flights between Tallahassee and his hometown of St. Petersburg as causing morale problems. They said he kept flying between the two cities — even after a legislative order banned travel by other workers unless it was critical to the agency's mission.
Peterman is fighting a ruling by the Commission on Ethics, which found probable cause that his trips to St. Petersburg violated ethics laws. Now his fate rests with an administrative law judge.
Peterman testified that he often spent workdays at a Department of Juvenile Justice office in St. Petersburg because it enabled him to interact more frequently with the families in DJJ's care and with agency employees, and to visit agency offices in several cities in Central Florida.
"My whole premise for being secretary is I wanted to make sure that I saw the people that I was over and actually went to the facilities and saw the staff and the kids," Peterman, a former state legislator, testified.
Peterman also said that his children remained enrolled in Pinellas County schools during his tenure as secretary and that he kept the homestead exemption on his St. Petersburg home as his permanent residence. He rented a Tallahassee apartment.
At issue is whether Peterman improperly traveled regularly from Tallahassee to St. Petersburg, where he used a DJJ probation office as a satellite headquarters during his two-year tenure at the department from 2008 to 2010.
Peterman's wife and children live in St. Petersburg, and he served as pastor of the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church during that time. He racked up travel charges of $44,000 in less than two years, a time in which legislators were repeatedly cutting money for programs.
A witness at Peterman's case was Bob Butterworth, who served as former Gov. Charlie Crist's child welfare secretary and testified that he also flew frequently between Tallahassee and his home in Broward County at public expense, and that no one complained.
"I said (to Crist) I cannot run this from Tallahassee for a number of reasons," Butterworth testified. "I mean, I was up there maybe three days a week."
Another witness, Bonnie Rogers, who was Peterman's chief of staff for his first year at DJJ, said he usually spent only a day and a half a week in Tallahassee. Even after the 2008 Legislature issued an edict restricting agency travel to only "mission-critical" trips, which grounded most other agency staff members, Peterman kept traveling, Rogers testified.
"The secretary, however, continued to travel back and forth to St. Pete by car but eventually by plane, and then the flights became more frequent and the fees stacked up on the luggage and stuff," Rogers testified. "So you had a morale issue internally in the department."
At that point, Rogers said, she complained to then-Deputy Chief of Staff Lori Rowe and "counseling sessions began with the governor's office." But as several witnesses testified, none had authority to curtail Peterman's travel because he reported to Crist.
Rogers' successor, Kelly Layman, also testified that Peterman's flying and extended absences from agency headquarters bothered other employees.
"It was a little bit of a constant topic of conversation that he was either absent or the comment would be that he must be in St. Pete or he must be home, something like that," Layman testified.
The initial ethics commission investigation recommended a finding of no probable cause, judging that while Peterman's travels could be considered wasteful, there was a lack of evidence that he acted with corrupt intent. But the ethics panel itself overrode that recommendation and called for a full investigation, which Peterman challenged.
Peterman reimbursed the state $25,630 last year for travel that was deemed excessive following investigation by Crist's chief inspector general. "Many of the duties that he did in St. Petersburg could have been done in Tallahassee just as easy or easier," said Assistant Attorney General Diane Guillemette, the advocate or prosecutor in the case who also had recommended the initial finding of no probable cause. She made the comment during one of the October hearings in Peterman's case.
Administrative law judge Susan Belyeu Kirkland is expected to issue a ruling by the end of the year. If she rules in favor of Peterman, he will be exonerated. If she rules against him, the case will go back to the Commission on Ethics, which will issue findings and recommend a penalty to Gov. Rick Scott.
Peterman served 7 1/2 years as a Democratic House member from St. Petersburg's District 55 before Crist appointed him to run the Department of Juvenile Justice in February 2008. He held the post for nearly two years and resigned shortly after Scott took office last January.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.