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Vacancies stall corrections review panel

As the Florida Department of Corrections faces scrutiny from state and federal investigators, an independent commission set up to review the agency's performance sits on the sidelines, powerless to even call a meeting.

Gov. Jeb Bush, in office since January, has failed to make appointments to six vacancies on the nine-member Florida Corrections Commission. As a result, the group does not have a quorum.

"We're in the dark over here," John Fuller, the commission's executive director, said on Wednesday. "We're hearing mixed rumors. We've been told the appointments will be made. And we're hearing that we are on a (budget) cut list."

Lucia Ross, a spokeswoman for Bush, said the governor plans to make the appointments. But Ross said she did not know who is under consideration for the openings or when Bush will make an announcement.

Corrections Secretary Michael Moore had nothing to say about the future of the commission or why the vacancies have not been filled.

"We have no comment on the commission," said C.J. Drake, Moore's press aide.

The Florida Corrections Commission was established by the Legislature in 1994. It functions independently of the Department of Corrections and is charged with evaluating the agency's efficiency, productivity and management at least four times a year.

The commission's primary function is to recommend major corrections policies to the governor. Its last meeting was in June, one month before the Department of Corrections came under fire after the beating death of Frank Valdes, a death row inmate at Florida State Prison near Starke.

Valdes died after being forcibly removed from his cell in X Wing, where the most troublesome prisoners are incarcerated. Other inmates on the wing have said Valdes was beaten to death by corrections officers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI have set up a joint investigation on the prison grounds.

In July 1998, former Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed five new members to the commission.

All commission appointments must be approved by the state Senate, but Bush withdrew the nominations during the spring legislative session. As a result, the Chiles appointments expired 45 days after the session ended.