Though the Administration on Aging acknowledged in its report that the appointment and removal of ombudsmen was well within the administrations authority, the report said the state could not remove ombudsmen in order to achieve political aims. The departure of the incumbent [ombudsman] caps off a history which the Department of Elder Affairs openly acknowledges has not allowed [the program] to be independent and impartial, the report added.
Mr. Lees departure has been a grave blow to a program that was already severely limited in its advocacy.
In his letter to federal authorities, Corley noted that willful interference with ombudsmen is a crime, though under the statutes plain meaning, administrators are well within their rights in voicing displeasure and criticism regarding how the ombudsman is performing his or her job.
If [Lees] argument that willful interference by any person includes criticism on how he or she conducts his or her duties is taken to its logical conclusion, then the department secretary would not be able to exercise his authority to remove the ombudsman without committing a crime. The Legislative mandate that the ombudsman serves at the pleasure of the department secretary is completely illusory if the secretary is subject to criminal prosecution for merely disagreeing with how the ombudsman is performing the job.
Two months after Lee was fired, a local volunteer who was calling for an investigation into his firing was herself terminated. Elder affairs administrators say she was fired for sending emails to other volunteers in violation of the states public records law though Lee says the emails also were sent to several reporters.
The federal report noted her departure with grave concern, saying such an interpretation of Floridas Sunshine Law would deal a crippling blow to volunteers ability to speak with each other.
After Lees departure, the elder affairs department appointed a new ombudsman who came with the support of an important group: the assisted living industry.
In December, before Scott took office, the director of the Florida Assisted Living Association sent the governor-elect a letter recommending an AHCA inspector for Lees job, praising the man, Robert Emling, for proactively opening lines of communication with the provider community and state and local agencies. Emling withdrew his name from consideration, and association director Pat Lange then recommended Jim Crochet, who was given the job.
We were impressed with Jims expertise, and we felt he would bring a lot to the position, Lange told The Herald.
Crochet did not respond to calls for comment.