TALLAHASSEE — Two days after Florida legislators asked a series of probing questions of the top inspector at the Department of Corrections, the agency has banned inspectors from discussing any investigations, releasing any public records relating to agency probes, or even voluntarily bringing information to outsiders — including legislators.
The virtual gag order requires all employees of the Office of Inspector General to sign a confidentiality agreement and three other documents pledging they will not use the department database for unauthorized use, will not release information on open or closed cases to anyone, and will not compromise their independence while they are working in the department.
Any violation could result in "immediate termination."
The Office of Inspector General is charged with investigating criminal wrongdoing or policy violations in the state's prison system.
Agency spokesman McKinley Lewis said the change was implemented Thursday by new DOC Secretary Julie Jones because she wanted to impose a standard used by most law enforcement agencies. He described the documents as "basic, normal forms that tell people to follow the law" and said it is part of Jones' effort to "fix many things in the department."
But the timing of the gag order raised questions and drew immediate criticism from lawmakers. This week, two Senate committees asked for data on agency investigations and grilled DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley about the complaints of current and former inspectors who have been denied whistleblower status.
"This right here is a slap in my face,'' said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which has been looking into agency practices in the wake of suspicious inmate deaths, reports of medical neglect, contraband rings and budget issues.
Evers asked Beasley on Tuesday to provide specifics about department policies, employee retribution and even asked if he used certain terms in conversation with his employees.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, asked Jones to provide her with a list of all open and closed investigations, as well as a list of investigations that involved contraband, employee misconduct, sexual misconduct between inmates and guards, and how many of them resulted in disciplinary charges.
Evers warned that if the new policy prevents access to that information, the DOC could be violating the state's public records law.
"I have not asked the IG for a copy of anything that should not be a public record and I am repulsed to think he would send out a letter to his staff not to release information that would be in the sunshine otherwise,'' he said.
He also questioned the need for the change. The DOC has used sworn law enforcement officers for years and they sign confidentiality agreements when they work on criminal cases. State law prohibits the release of information on pending investigations but, in most cases, the records are made public when they are closed.
Ron McAndrew, a former warden who has worked as a prison consultant for more than 10 years, said he has never seen anything so thorough or threatening by the DOC. He speculated that it is designed to intimidate anyone who might want to talk about corruption or abuse in the prison system.
"This is a scare technique, that they are saying 'we will put the fear of God in everybody and threaten their jobs,' '' he said. "They may as well say we have a firing squad waiting for anyone who doesn't heed the word.''
McAndrew said the agency may be reacting to what it perceives as leaks in the media, including a series of reports in the Miami Herald detailing suspicious inmate deaths and alleged cover-ups of abuse.
"They don't want anybody telling them what's wrong,'' McAndrew said. "They would rather wait until the house burns down.'"
Lewis, the DOC spokesman, said the policies are not designed to gag employees or keep crucial records from lawmakers.
"It's not to silence anybody or anything crazy like that,'' he said. "It's just to make sure everyone is following the law." State law already prohibits current and former employees from releasing information that is not a public record, he said.
But Stephen R. Andrews, the Tallahassee lawyer representing four DOC investigators who were denied whistleblower status after warning Beasley about alleged corruption in the agency, said he fears it could interfere with his ability to talk to his clients.
"I believe that these documents would prohibit my clients from discussing their case with me and would also impede my ability to interview current or even former IG employees,'' he wrote in a letter to Attorney General Pam Bondi. He requested that Bondi ask the DOC to clarify that if his clients sign the documents they can still discuss such matters with him.
Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, who has worked to strengthen the state's inspector general laws, said he wants inspector general offices to become more transparent, not less.
"Why is there all of a sudden this gag order?'' he asked. "What is it that you don't want people to know about?"
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.