A Senate committee on Thursday voted to confirm Julie Jones as secretary of the Department of Corrections after she defiantly denied allegations from a group of whistleblowers who alleged that her agency sanctioned the cover-up of inmate abuse and staff corruption.
“I do not agree with the majority of the testimony,” Jones told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice during a hearing on her confirmation as secretary. The committee unanimously confirmed her appointment, making her the fifth secretary to serve the agency under Gov. Rick Scott in five years.
Jones referred to the testimony of three inspectors at the Department of Corrections, and one former inspector who is now a county sheriff, who told a Senate committee in March that they were ordered to ignore evidence of crimes committed by corrupt officials because doing so would give the agency a “black eye.”
They cited cases where they were told to withhold information from prosecutors, to close investigations into staffers who were politically connected and to avoid bringing criminal charges no matter how much evidence they had.
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Jones later responded by calling the whistleblowers “disgruntled employees” who “do not have the best interests of the agency at heart.”
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, asked about the comments and told Jones that she was concerned about reports that Inspector General Jeffery Beasley and other agency officials covered-up the the deaths of inmates, including one who was gassed and another who collapsed in a locked, scalding shower.
“What steps do you intend to take to restore integrity and credibility for the actions of your inspector general?” Joyner asked.
Jones replied that she asked Melinda Miguel, the governor’s chief inspector general, “to look into every single accusation that they made” under oath, and determine if there was any wrongdoing, any rules violations or any evidence of employees being put under undue pressure.
“I want her to look at every single comment that was made by ever person that testified,” she said. “She’s not reported back to as yet.”
Jones then repeated her defense of Beasley and dismissed the allegations as situations that “happened years ago.”
“Short of firing Mr. Beasley for no cause, I don’t know how to answer your question,” Jones told Joyner. “Everything that I know of Mr. Beasley, and how he has handled these cases, has been spot-on and he has not mishandled anything to my knowledge.”
Miguel serves with Beasley on the statewide association of inspectors general and has previously been asked to investigate claims by the whistleblowers about wrongdoing and cover-ups at the agency but either dismissed them or turned them back over to Beasley.
Documents obtained by the Miami Herald last year found that in 2012, Miguel was warned about the possible cover-up of two suspicious prison deaths but, rather than investigate them, turned the letter over to Beasley, whose office was accused of hiding the deaths.
“We have not turned a blind eye,” Jones told the committee. “We have had the governor’s general counsel look at every investigation to make sure there is no stone left unturned and I can assure you that the perception is not reality. The only way to overcome that is to continue to give a good product to our employees.”
Although Jones defended Beasley, she told reporters after the meeting that she has fired several employees in her three months on the job for making false claims or writing false reports, and she has met with officials in each prison to send the message that they are being held accountable for their actions.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas