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Ex-Rep. Peterman could face $5,000 fine and censure over travel abuses

Published Jan. 4, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Frank Peterman's taxpayer-financed travels are over, but the punishment continues.

Nearly two years after the former St. Petersburg lawmaker reimbursed taxpayers for dozens of questionable trips between the state capital and his home in Pinellas County, Peterman faces more problems.

A state hearing officer is recommending Peterman pay a fine of $5,000 and be censured and reprimanded for what the judge called "excessive" travel during his term as secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2008 and 2009.

"Mr. Peterman used his position as secretary of DJJ to travel to his primary residence at state expense when there was no state purpose for the travel," wrote Susan Belyeu Kirkland, an administrative law judge, in an 18-page order issued Dec. 30.

Even after Peterman received warnings from top aides to then-Gov. Charlie Crist to curtail his travels, the judge concluded, "He continued to travel to St. Petersburg by air and, in some instances, for no other reason than to be home on the weekends. Such actions show that he corruptly used his position to get home at state expense."

Peterman's attorney, Mark Herron of Tallahassee, called the judge's findings "an injustice," because the travel was not illegal. Herron said the decision would be appealed to a Florida court.

"It's disappointing to say the least and it's somewhat of a surprise," Herron said. "They seem more concerned about the public relations impact of it than the legality of it. It's been an injustice from the get-go."

Peterman's travels were disclosed in a Times/Herald report in December 2009, following confidential complaints by state workers that Peterman was often away from his office, even during legislative sessions when agency officials are expected to be seen in the Capitol defending their programs and budgets.

Over an 18-month period, Peterman racked up travel bills of about $44,000, often working out of a satellite state office in St. Petersburg. More than half of the total was for travel between St. Petersburg and Tallahassee, and charges included $2,169 for airport parking and $562 for checked baggage fees.

Peterman's wife and children remained in St. Petersburg while he served in state government, and he continued to preach every Sunday at the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church.

Following an internal investigation by Crist's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, Peterman wrote checks to the state treasury for about $26,000. The report said that Peterman's claim that the trips were essential to his state work could not be corroborated because of sloppy record-keeping.

The $5,000 fine and censure of Peterman is a recommendation to be decided by the state Commission on Ethics.

Ironically, the agency's prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Diane Guillemette, initially recommended that no penalty be imposed on Peterman because the corrupt intent provision could be sustained.

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When the commission overruled the staff recommendation and issued a probable cause finding against Peterman, he filed for an administrative review of the case, which led to the judge's order following two days of public testimony in November.

Peterman, 49, served for more than seven years as a Democratic state House member before Crist appointed him as DJJ secretary.

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

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