A new watchdog has been hired to oversee Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections, which has been mired in lawsuits, federal probes and accusations of corruption and brutality against inmates for years.
Lester Fernandez, the assistant inspector general for the federal Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud in Washington, D.C., will start his new post on June 6. As FDC’s inspector general, he will oversee all probes into wrongdoing in the prisons. He also will work with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates in-custody deaths, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been looking into whether the agency has a pattern or practice of civil rights violations.
Last year, FDC had more than 350 prisoner deaths, a record. Incidents involving use of force, between officers and inmates, have more than doubled in the past five years, and human rights groups contend that the agency has committed abuses against inmates in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
A Miami native, Fernandez has more than 30 years of experience in criminal financial fraud and employee misconduct investigations, according to his résumé. Prior to working for the U.S. Department of Labor, he was deputy assistant IG for the U.S. Department of Education, and special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Atlanta.
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He has managed investigations into political corruption, white collar crime and tax fraud. Fernandez graduated from St. Thomas University in Opa-locka, with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Humanities, and is fluent in Spanish. He also is a graduate of Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School in Miami.
In 2013, Fernandez was a candidate to be the internal watchdog at Citizens Property Insurance.
Fernandez’s appointment was announced Thursday by Melinda Miguel, Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general. He will earn $115,000 a year.
He replaces Jeffery Beasley, who stepped down last year to assume another role at the agency. Beasley’s deputy, Kenneth Sumpter, is serving as acting inspector general.
Beasley’s tenure was marred by more than a year of widespread criticism and allegations by corrections officers, inspectors, sworn law enforcement officers and prisoners that he and other top leaders failed to investigate, and in some cases, may have even thwarted, investigations into wrongdoing.
Beasley is now head of FDC’s intelligence division, which is tasked with probing inmate-generated crime, including identity theft and drug and tobacco trafficking.