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Questions follow new CEO of prison industry company

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Two months after conflicts of interest with a spinoff firm caused Florida's prison industries company to jettison its chief executive officer, the company's chairwoman has picked an interim CEO from the same controversial firm.

Bob Bury, president of the Utah company Northern Outfitters, this week began leading PRIDE, the nonprofit St. Petersburg company created by the Legislature in 1981 to run the state's various prison industries, from furniture-building to manufacturing cleaning products.

PRIDE chairwoman Maria Camila Leiva announced Bury's appointment, which was not approved by the company's board, to employees in an electronic message last week. It comes as PRIDE executives and board members continue to undergo scrutiny concerning at least $10-million in assets that were used to launch private spinoff companies run by PRIDE executives.

Gov. Jeb Bush's office, whose inspector general has been investigating the spinoff companies since June, declined to comment on Bury's appointment Friday.

Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said the governor is waiting until the inspector general's report is complete before he decides whether to push for change at PRIDE. Bush so far has resisted reappointing or replacing up to six board members whose appointments have expired or will expire by the end of the month.

"Gov. Bush continues to have concerns about a number of issues concerning PRIDE," DiPietre said. But the governor won't appoint any new members until after he sees the inspector general's report.

PRIDE invested in the spinoff companies during a period when its revenues dropped more than 30 percent and the number of inmate jobs dropped to a 15-year low. At the same time the salary of then-CEO Pamela Jo Davis increased 35 percent to $236,000.

Among the chief critics of PRIDE's leaders has been James Crosby, whose job as Department of Corrections Secretary, makes him an automatic member of the PRIDE board. He first alerted Bush's staff to his concerns late last year shortly after taking the job.

Leiva acknowledged Friday that she may not have the authority to appoint an interim CEO without board action. Leiva said she anticipated bringing Bury's appointment to the board in mid September. But she canceled the meeting after Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist issued a ruling last week that PRIDE is a de facto government agency and must abide by open government laws, something the company has not done for years.

Crosby had requested the attorney general's opinion.

"I'm not sure what the situation is right now; I'm not sure about anything," said Leiva, who lives in Coral Gables and whose term expired a year ago. "All the rules of the game we've played by for the last 20 years have changed. But I needed to do something. I needed someone to work on sales and marketing. We cannot continue to wait."

The board is expected to discuss the appointment Wednesday when it meets at the Tampa Airport Marriott. The public has been properly notified of the meeting, Leiva said.

In picking Bury, Leiva tapped a subordinate of Davis, the longtime PRIDE CEO whom the board forced to resign in July after the governor's office opened its investigation. Also forced to resign was PRIDE president John Bruels.

Davis, however, remains intricately involved with the state's prison industries. She is CEO of Industries Training Corp., the spinoff company that has come under scrutiny. ITC has the sole contract to run PRIDE's office and administrative operations and owns numerous subsidiaries including Bury's Northern Outfitters.

Davis, Leiva and other board members have repeatedly rejected allegations that the board did anything wrong in launching ITC and its numerous subsidiaries, saying the spinoffs were designed to make PRIDE more cost-effective, to create jobs for prisoners and to create more demand for prison-made goods.

Among the more ambitious enterprises was ITC's purchase of Northern Outfitters, which uses Utah prisoners to manufacture extreme-weather clothing. Davis has said PRIDE hoped the business would grow, eventually creating jobs for Florida prisoners. It never has. Bury was brought in within the last year to try to change that.

Leiva expressed confidence Friday that Bury will be loyal to PRIDE in his new job. Leiva said Bury secured a leave of absence from ITC before reporting to work this week.

"It's naive to think he can continue to work for both operations," Leiva said Friday. "I don't know what else he can do (but be loyal to PRIDE) when there are so many eyes and ears all over the place."