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  1. Florida Politics

Lawsuit: Florida agency hid background check for political insider

Published Apr. 6, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Leaders at the state's Department of Elder Affairs circumvented hiring procedures and appointed an attorney with a criminal history at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott's then-chief of staff, according to a whistle-blower lawsuit filed in Leon County court.

Attorney Donald Bell was hired for the $98,000-a-year top-level post despite a drug conviction and two arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, the lawsuit alleges. He was recommended by former Scott chief of staff Steve MacNamara, emails show.

The lawsuit, filed by former human resources employee Frances Brooks, says Elder Affairs secretary Charles Corley passed over other applicants and allowed Bell to skip key background screenings, shielding his record from other employees while bypassing safeguards to protect elderly people served by the agency.

Bell "was above the rules," Brooks said. "You can see from these documents he didn't have to jump through any of the hoops any other person would have been required to jump through."

The Department of Elder Affairs provides dozens of services for elderly people, from offering them legal and financial advice to helping them sign up for Medicare. Bell's role is to defend lawsuits against the department, oversee its internal legal needs and to facilitate legal services for the elderly.

The department has hired outside counsel to defend the case. Bell declined to comment for the article, but Corley said the lawsuit makes false claims.

"We disagree with the allegations made by the plaintiff in this case and the inferences made in this article," Corley wrote in an email, adding he would not discuss specifics of a pending lawsuit.

Since department employees commonly enter the homes of the vulnerable or have access to financially sensitive information, they undergo more extensive background screenings than other state employees.

In Bell's case, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement screened him twice and turned his criminal information over to the Department of Elder Affairs.

Only Bell, 59, was already hired, the suit says. So he and Corley ordered human resources employees to keep the records a secret by halting application procedures and further screenings, according to the lawsuit.

There is no evidence Bell, a former staff member of the state House and Senate, has abused his role at the department. He is in good standing with the Florida Bar.

Bell has been arrested five times since 1973, mostly on charges related to substance abuse.

His most recent arrest was in 2002 on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. In 1993, he verbally assaulted a man and deflated his tires, a police report states. Bell was belligerent to officers and told them to release him because it would embarrass his children and because he was a law professor at Florida State University. The drug conviction, after Bell delivered 4,000 tablets of allegedly hallucinogenic drugs to a law enforcement officer in Putnam County, was pardoned by then-Gov. Bob Graham in 1981.

The lawsuit and documents obtained by the Times suggest the department did not:

• Require Bell to fill out a State of Florida application, which includes a section in which Bell would have been asked to disclose his criminal record.

• Compare Bell's Florida Department of Law Enforcement record with his Clerk of Courts record, which can disclose additional offenses related to an employee's criminal history.

• Send Bell's criminal history to the department's legal office, where employees determine whether criminal offenses disqualify applicants from employment. The department is banned from hiring people with certain types of convictions — such as those involving minors or vulnerable populations.

MacNamara, Scott's former chief of staff, said he is friends with Bell, but denied influencing his hire. Asked whether he had acted as a professional reference for Bell, MacNamara said he couldn't remember.

Records reveal MacNamara did help.

"I want to thank you for sending Don Bell my way," Corley wrote to MacNamara, shortly after Bell's 2011 hire. "We met for lunch on December 21st and had a good discussion of the job and his approach to the job."

MacNamara resigned in May 2012 after the Times/Herald revealed he was steering contracts to friends and interfering in staffing decisions throughout state government.

Brooks, the human resources employee who filed the suit, was forced to resign last April after 23 years when an independent internal investigation found she had a troubled relationship with her colleagues.

She says she was fired because she notified a supervisor that Corley and Bell had pressed her to break the rules.

Brooks' attorney, Steven Andrews, has long been an enemy of Gov. Scott, calling Scott "the corporate spawn of Satan" during the 2010 campaign. Andrews and Scott are also in a legal battle over property adjacent to the Governor's Mansion.

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353.

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