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Florida DOC Ends Unofficial Transfer-for-Sale Policy

by David M. Reutter

It has long been an established fact among Florida prisoners that if you wanted a transfer to a certain prison, you could pay well-connected lawyers to make that transfer happen. After Florida then Department of Corrections (FDOC) Secretary James R. McDonough learned of this practice, he not only brought it to a swift end but also disciplined staff members who had engaged in such improper conduct.

McDonough’s intervention in the transfers-for-sale scandal was his last act as FDOC Secretary before he resigned in January 2008. When he took over the reins at FDOC almost two years earlier, McDonough accepted the helm of a state prison system that was rotten to its core [See: PLN, Dec. 2006, pg 1].

In fact, McDonough’s new office at FDOC headquarters in Tallahassee had been sealed off as a crime scene by state and federal law enforcement officials. “That was an indication we had a problem in the department,” McDonough observed.

The scandals that preceeded McDonough’s appointment as FDOC Secretary included theft of state property, widespread steroid use by staff, drunken orgies involving prison employees, the murder of several prisoners and the acceptance of kickbacks by former Secretary James Crosby, who is currently serving 8 years in federal prison [See: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.32]. “He walked into a can of worms and a pot of snakes,” said State Senator Victor Crist.

From the start, McDonough strove to set a new tone for FDOC staff. “The tone that you set permeates the ranks almost instantly,” said McDonough, a combat veteran who saw action in two wars, receiving three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart before retiring with the rank of colonel. “By the time I got to be a battalion commander in the Army, it was almost uncanny; whatever mood I was in, within 30 minutes of my arriving in the unit area in the morning they would all know.… It’s what you stand and what you stand for, what you allow and what you disallow.”

One thing McDonough was not going to allow was the corruption that had crept into the highest echelons of FDOC. “If you’re dishonest, you’re fired,” he said, and he meant it. By August 2006, or just six months into his tenure, McDonough had fired or forced out more than 50 upper-level FDOC employees. Within the next 18 months, forty more prison staff members were fired for job-related infractions.

Despite establishing a bright line for what the new administration would tolerate, some employees could not separate themselves from old, ingrained practices. The practice of helping prisoners obtain transfers through payments to certain lawyers was a perk of sorts for some former FDOC employees.

The sale of transfers had been ongoing for many years. In his letter of resignation issued hours before he was to be fired, David Tune, administrator of FDOC’s work release program, wrote “These types of transfers have been occurring for at least 25 years and all of the administrations … have been aware of this practice.” This PLN writer can attest to the veracity of that statement; from my arrival at the FDOC twenty years ago until recently, I have been aware of the practice and watched it work for other prisoners.

Transfers could be purchased for $1,500 in 1988. FDOC officials said the fees have since climbed to between $2,000 to $7,000. They claim that over the past seven years more than 2,000 transfers may have been improperly “sold.” FDOC’s investigation revealed that from July 2006 to July 2007 there were 371 improper transfers. Once the scandal was uncovered by McDonough’s administration, 74 of those prisoners were sent back to their original facilities. It is doubtful that the lawyers who arranged the transfers refunded their fees to those prisoners or their families.

In a letter to a Tallahassee attorney allegedly involved in the scheme, FDOC officials accused him of using “overt and covert actions to improperly influence” prisoner transfers. State authorities did not name the two lawyers and former FDOC employees who acted as “consultants” to help prisoners obtain transfers for a fee.

According to the FDOC, the scheme worked by ex-FDOC employees either acting as consultants or working for the attorneys. These ex-employees would call their former FDOC co-workers and request that a certain prisoner be transferred to a specific prison. In addition to the forced resignation of Tune, FDOC officials John Becker and John McLaughlin were demoted for “failure of leadership.”

While FDOC did not name any of the attorneys involved, it was known among Florida prisoners that Tallahassee lawyer Bernard Daly was a “transfer lawyer.” His reputation, as passed between prisoners, was that he was great for hiring if you wanted a transfer, but for anything else you gave him money at your own risk.

In the late 1990s, Daly was suspended by the Florida Supreme Court for swindling prisoners and their families out of several hundred thousand dollars. It was discovered that Daly had charged prisoners for services to challenge their sentences or convictions, but then did nothing or filed pleadings that would be dismissed for un-timeliness. When he was readmitted to the Florida Bar, Daly picked up where he left off by providing legal services to Florida prisoners. So far he has done so without further reports of bilking his incarcerated clients.

The sale of transfers was likely a time-honored perk for ex-FDOC employees upon retirement. It provided them with a little extra cash and enabled prisoners with the fiscal resources to obtain transfers to better facilities or one closer to home, which can be very difficult in an overcrowded prison system. McDonough saw it as a security threat.

“In one case two inmates were planning an escape with an outside party,” McDonough said. “Their intent was to get to a prison that didn’t have a tower because they had a scheme to get a helicopter to come and get them out.” He also felt the selling of transfers was unethical and unfair, though it did not rise to the level of criminal behavior.

McDonough had a thing for fairness. Not only did he set a tone for FDOC employees, but he also sought to establish a tone for what he considered “my inmates.” During his tenure as FDOC Secretary, McDonough reduced the cost of canteen items and collect telephone calls accepted by prisoners’ families and friends.

“I didn’t feel the high cost of phone calls for prisoners and their families was proper. I stopped it,” he said. As a result, a fifteen-minute collect call from prison now costs $1.80 – a far cry from the $27.00 that out-of-state calls used to cost.

McDonough resigned as FDOC’s Secretary effective January 31, 2008. When discussing his resignation, McDonough said, “This is not my field. I was asked to do this, and it was meant to be short term. It is time.” As his replacement, Governor Charlie Crist appointed Walter A. McNeil as FDOC Secretary. McDonough said McNeil is a “good man who should continue along the path I started.”

There is speculation that McDonough resigned in the face of resistance from state officials who were opposed to his crackdown on FDOC staff and efforts to clean up entrenched corruption in the department. “He’s tired” said Senator Crist. “He’s been a tremendous public servant. He has such integrity. He has really righted the ship, and I’m grateful to him.”

Florida prisoners, for the most part, are saddened to see McDonough go. Never before has someone been at FDOC’s helm who not only expected integrity from the top down, but reached out to such a degree to help those on the bottom rung of the ladder. McDonough is now a fellow at the New York based JEHT Foundation.

Sources: Tampa Tribune, St Petersburg Times, Tallahassee Democrat, Palm Beach Post, Associated Press

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