TALLAHASSEE -- Disgraced psychologist George Rekers was labeled a ``right-wing, religious-based'' expert witness and rejected for months by state attorneys defending Florida's gay adoption ban.
But when they couldn't find anyone else to replace him on the witness stand, Attorney General Bill McCollum overruled his trial attorneys, quickly hired Rekers, and paid him twice his agreed upon contract with no questions asked, according to documents released this week by McCollum's office.
Rekers, a psychiatry professor at the University of South Carolina, has been stripped of his credibility after reports surfaced that he hired a gay male escort to give him nude ``sexual'' massages and accompany him on a recent European vacation.
The adoption ban case, in which the state paid Rekers more than $120,000 to testify on the ``negative effects'' of gay parenting, has been ruled unconstitutional and the state is appealing.
The Rekers fee was almost a third of what the state has spent on the gay adoption ban lawsuit to date -- $383,000. Half the cost has gone to attorneys fees; the rest to general expenses, including $120,000 to Rekers.
Meanwhile, records obtained by The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, show that despite repeated objections from the Department of Children and Families, the attorney general agreed to advance Rekers $60,900 to get him to take the case and another $59,700 a year later as the case dragged on.
The payments included $9,000 for 30 hours of searching journal articles and books, $27,000 to ``read the relevant publications since Sept. 2004 and evaluate and critique the methodological quality.'' A year later, he charged for nearly 30 hours for reading the same materials again.
Rekers was paid to meet with the attorney general's staff to prepare for depositions and to be deposed by lawyers for the adoptive parents.
McCollum said he wouldn't hire Rekers again knowing what he knows today -- but he defends the expense.
``If you look at the record, you will see he actually earned it,'' McCollum said this week. ``He definitely put the hours and the time in. This is not a case where we overpaid him.''
DCF asked the attorney general's office to handle the case in February 2007 because then-Secretary Bob Butterworth was focused on turning around the agency beset by repeated troubles.
``We basically had to,'' Butterworth said last week, noting that failing to defend the ban against a lawsuit would have been like picking a fight with the Republican-controlled Legislature.
``The only problem we had was the expert, and the amount of money and the credibility of the expert,'' he said.
`SIMPLE AS THAT'
Documents show that instead of raising questions about the bill submitted by Rekers, McCollum's staff asked for the first check to be expedited because they feared losing him before their deadline to submit the list of expert witnesses.
``When you get an expert in a case and the deadline for disclosure is passed, you don't just drop an expert because he says I need more money,'' Deputy Attorney General Bob Hannah said. ``You just keep going and make arrangements to pay the expert. It's as simple as that.''
Hannah said Rekers asked for the money up front so that his fees would not be contested, as had happened in previous cases in which he testified.
But the attorney general had to find a creative way to get the money to him. ``Our finance folks said the only way to do that is through a purChase order,'' Hannah said. The hiring of Rekers and other expert witnesses became a top priority of the attorney general's office shortly after they took over the case.
When Peggy Sanford, DCF deputy general counsel, was asked to submit a list of suggested witnesses in February 2007, she asked in an e-mail: ``What kind of expert witnesses are needed? To testify to what.''
She was told the attorney general's office wanted someone who could say ``two parent heterosexual families are best.''
Sanford replied: ``I have no experts on this issue. I thought we were relying on following the law.''
Rekers had been used in a previous case involving the state DCF and was retained as an expert witness in an Arkansas case. But the lead trial attorney defending the state ban on adoption, Assistant Attorney General Valerie Martin strongly urged the state not to use him again.
``Dr. Rekers is a right-wing, religious based expert who I was reluctant to use - but nevertheless contacted him with no response,'' Martin wrote in a March 2007 e-mail to John Slye, DCF deputy general counsel.
The trial date was extended to August and the state then considered 35 possible expert witnesses but, Martin said in a July e-mail, she was ordered to hire Rekers ``against my strong cautions.''
McCollum said he was aware that Rekers was not considered as credible in Arkansas as he was in a previous case in which he was used in Florida ``but he was qualified. There was never any dispute over his qualifications.''
Hannah acknowledged they hired Rekers to bolster their case. ``If you haven't hired the experts to help you win the case, then you're not doing the job. You can't sit and rationalize over the expert or later even over his personal life,'' she said.
Staff writers John Frank and Lee Logan contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com