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State review raises questions about Juvenile Justice secretary's spending

TALLAHASSEE — Florida juvenile justice chief Frank Peterman's extensive travel at taxpayer expense includes thousands of dollars in extra charges because of missed flights as well as $2,300 in airport parking costs called "excessive" in an ongoing state review.

The inspector general's investigation was ordered by Gov. Charlie Crist after a Times/Herald report in November showed that Peterman spent $44,000 on travel over 21 months, about half of it for flights between Tallahassee and Tampa. The inquiry, expected to be completed next week, also shows:

• Peterman, who maintains a second office in St. Petersburg with a secretary, approved $26,000 in renovations to the office shortly after he took over the Department of Juvenile Justice in February 2008.

• When he travels, Peterman often uses short-term airport parking lots and has charged taxpayers $2,300 for parking and $800 in luggage fees.

• Even though his family home is in St. Petersburg, he charged the state $785 for five hotel nights and a rental car at two Tampa conferences, and has paid to park cars in Tampa and Tallahassee for round-trip flights.

• On at least 18 occasions, he has changed flight times at an average cost to the state of $100 each. Shamika Baker, Peterman's executive assistant, says he overslept and missed some flights, but he says she's "misinformed."

Baker warned Peterman about flying too often and urged him to drive instead. Even after Crist last year ordered agencies to cut back on state-funded trips, his travel patterns did not change.

Peterman said Thursday: "I think that for the most part, based on my own travel, I think I've been reasonably responsible."

Questioned by the inspector general's office on Dec. 29, Peterman defended his travel as a way to visit staff members and youths in two of the seven high crime areas in the state.

"The St. Pete office was used to create a decentralized place to meet with staff, parents, and kids from the rest of the state," Peterman's interview summary says. "Work in St. Pete is more focused on the relationships with field staff and kids."

The inspector general's findings noted: "Mr. Peterman did not regularly travel to other facilities or districts."

A statement from Crist's office said he "looks forward to reviewing the Inspector General's full and complete report in the next two weeks. At that time, we will look at the entire findings and provide direct comment about the completed investigation."

• • •

Peterman, 47, earns $120,000 a year as Department of Juvenile Justice secretary, overseeing 4,800 full-time employees and a $619 million budget. The department provides prevention and treatment services for troubled children and also runs the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna whose 100-year history of abuse has been chronicled by the St. Petersburg Times.

During his time as an agency head, Peterman has continued to serve as pastor of the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where he preaches. His wife and children live in St. Petersburg.

Documents provided by the governor's office show that after joining the administration, Peterman sought $26,000 in improvements to an office in St. Petersburg that he has used during frequent state-paid visits.

It's not unusual for agency heads to have satellite offices, but the inspector general review found that Peterman often spends four days a week in St. Petersburg (Friday through Monday) and the other three days at the agency's Tallahassee headquarters.

According to an inspector general's summary of an interview with Baker, his executive assistant: "Baker stated that she wasn't sure what is so critical in the District Office that required the Secretary (Peterman) to be there weekly."

Records also show that the secretary Peterman hired to work in that office, Corinne Brown, is a part-time employee of Peterman's church.

• • •

Baker is one of at least five current or former agency employees questioned about Peterman's travel by Inspector General Melinda Miguel's office.

"Ms. Baker stated that flights are missed and periodically need to be rescheduled because of oversleeping if the Secretary does not get up on time or does not receive a wake-up call," a summary of her interview says. "She does not perform a comparison of flying versus driving, but has suggested to the secretary that he drive."

Peterman said his aide was "misinformed," and it's "not accurate" that he missed flights due to oversleeping. He attributed the missed flights to traffic, meetings that ran late or unexpected phone calls.

The inspector general found that Peterman flew about 70 times between Tampa and Tallahassee between February 2008 and November 2009 at a cost of $23,572, a figure slightly higher than the Times/Herald originally reported.

Peterman's missed some 8 a.m. flights leaving Tampa International Airport. The state report does not show how many of those were from oversleeping, and Peterman did not provide specifics to his interrogators.

"Hard to answer," a summary of Peterman's interview says of his response. "He was trying to get to meetings or to work."

Peterman's justification for leaving a car in short-term parking for several days at a time? "Timeliness to make flights. Tried to have folks drop him off."

The inspector general's report also noted that Peterman charged taxpayers to park cars in both cities for round-trip flights. "Why?" the report asked. "Is it possible the Secretary had a car parked at the airport for his use upon arrival? The charges seem to be unusually high … how was this justified?"

The tentative findings note that Peterman's travel habits did not change even after state agencies received a belt-tightening edict last January to restrict travel to trips that are "critical" to the agency's mission, which Peterman defined as travel "for direct care of children."

In his interview summary, Peterman said his Tampa trips were critical to the agency's mission: "For example, traveling to TPA to make a meeting to deal with DJJ issues."

A followup memo in September from Crist's deputy chief of staff, David Foy, cautioned: "Remember we are working for the people of Florida, and treat your agency budget like you would be paying out of your own checkbook."

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

State review raises questions about Juvenile Justice secretary's spending 01/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 1:12am]
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