Faced with speaking up or losing their jobs, two inspectors with the Department of Corrections asked a circuit court in Leon County on Monday to stop the Department of Corrections from enforcing a new gag order they say is an attempt at intimidating them from discussing cases that are public record or reporting misconduct.
The inspectors, Aubrey Land and John Ulm, were among several agency staff told by DOC Secretary Julie Jones that they had until Feb. 17 to sign three documents pledging not to discuss open or closed investigations — even if the investigations are a public record. Employees who failed to sign could be subject to “immediate termination.”
The confidentiality agreement violates several state and federal statutes and “is tantamount to FDOC-sponsored obstruction of justice and censorship,” Land and Ulm said in the complaint.
The virtual gag order came on the same week that two Senate committees asked detailed questions about the agency’s handling of suspicious inmate deaths and questionable investigations in the wake of reports in the Miami Herald, and a whistleblower lawsuit filed by the inspectors and their supervisors.
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After the Herald reported on the new rules, Jones issued a statement that the agreement would not prevent inspectors “from fulfilling their duties as public servants and law enforcement officers.”
She said that the agreement was intended to insure the integrity of their investigations and to protect both “aggrieved individuals and the inspectors.” She noted that since she began in the job in early January, she has implemented a policy “to make clear that all complaints will be taken seriously and remain confidential during the investigative phase.”
She said the goal of the agreement “is to ensure that those who come forward are not subject to retaliation of any kind.”
But the Land and Ulm disagreed. They and two supervisors in the Office of Inspector General, Doug Glissen and David Clark, are suing the department for targeting and retaliating against them for alleged possible criminal wrongdoing and cover-up in the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo in Franklin Correctional Institution.
Their complaint alleges that the rule violates the state’s open records laws, the federal Commerce Clause, and a state statute that requires inspectors who believe a crime has been committed to report their findings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
They say the rule is an attempt to intimidate and threaten them and constitutes witness tampering in criminal misconduct in violation of federal law. And they allege that the rule was designed to prohibit them “from reporting misconduct outside of the agency including staffing of institutions below critical need standards and ongoing prisoner abuse.”
DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis acknowledged that inspectors who signed the documents could not speak publicly or voluntarily discuss with interested parties cases that are closed and are now public records, and they could not release documents that are public records.
He said in a statement that “Office of the Inspector General’s Command Staff and the Custodian of Records are permitted to disclose Confidential Information in accordance with applicable laws, policies, procedures, and directives.”
A previous version of this story misquoted McKinley Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman.