Florida Inmates Are Caught In Political Crosshairs

Issues surround the state's prison system and the the agency's in charge of overseeing them. (Photo by Yossi G via Creative Commons)

Issues surround the state’s prison system and the the agency’s in charge of overseeing them. (Photo by Yossi G via Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After the resignations of top state officials in two departments, aggressive reporting by the The Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald is raising some questions about who is watching the watchers.

According to stories from the Times/Herald, Gov. Rick Scott’s office had a hand in ousting an investigator who found evidence of widespread abuse in the state’s prisons system. Meanwhile, the new commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement promoted a man to a position that will oversee prison investigations, who happens to be married to the FBI agent in charge of investigating allegations against the state’s prison system. Some are saying it’s a conflict of interest.

According to the Times/Herald,

Gov. Rick Scott’s office permitted the Department of Corrections to oust investigator David Folsom from his job when he was calling attention to the agency’s failure to report widespread abuse by guards, but the governor’s staff also was willing to help him find other work.

According to documents obtained by the Herald/Times, the governor’s deputy chief of staff Geoffrey Becker offered Folsom a job at the Department of Highway Safety, after the veteran investigator had been placed on paid leave without cause at DOC.

But Folsom still hasn’t found a comparable job; the Department of Corrections is still rife with allegations of abuse and cover-ups, and former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey has called new attention to the governor’s office meddling in hiring decisions.

During his nearly four years at the Department of Corrections, Folsom was deputy inspector general and chief of law enforcement. He investigated complaints of abuse by guards at state prisons and found at least 85 cases, many of which should have been reported to FDLE for alleged violations but were not, sources close to the investigations said.

Folsom was placed on paid leave by Inspector General Jeff Beasley in August 2013. Shortly after that, he got a call from Becker, Scott’s deputy chief of staff who oversaw corrections.

The Times/Herald also found that at around the same time there was an interesting promotion within the agency.

According to the Times/Herald,

One of the first decisions made by the new commissioner Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen last week was to promote Don Ladner, 53, as his top deputy.

Ladner’s wife is Teresa Gustafson, a lead investigator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee. She is also an FBI agent in charge of investigating allegations of excessive force and suspicious inmate deaths in Florida prisons.

That means an FBI agent in charge of investigating allegations against the state’s prison system is married to the FDLE’s top deputy, overseeing FDLE’s investigations into the prison system.

The U.S. Department of Justice will not comment, and FDLE says it sees no conflict of interest in the relationship.

“FDLE requested the involvement of the  US Attorney’s Office and this case is a joint FDLE and FBI investigation overseen by the US Attorney’s Office and the US Department of Justice,’’ said Gretl Plessinger, FDLE spokeswoman.  “Assistant Commissioner Ladner has complete faith in the FDLE Agents working this case to conduct a complete and impartial investigation.”

According to a whistleblower complaint filed in Leon County circuit court in July, Gustafson began investigating Franklin County Correctional Institute last year for the 2010 death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo who was found dead after being repeatedly gassed by guards in an isolation cell after pleading for medical help.

Gustafson is also investigating allegations that guards were beating inmates and trafficking in contraband, according to sources close to the probe.

All of this is taking place amid a possible federal investigation into whether Florida prisons are doing a poor job of taking care of their inmates. There are also questions surrounding whether the state can handle internal investigations related to inmate abuse when something happens.

In light of news that Scott’s team was meddling in the FDLE, state lawmakers have decided to take on prison reforms and investigations themselves. During committee meetings this week, the Florida Legislature began investigating the state’s prison system and the agencies tasked with making sure incidents are properly investigated and wrongdoers are properly reprimanded.