TALLAHASSEE -- The last time Jeb Bush and Jimmy Crosby shared the spotlight, the governor and his corrections secretary celebrated the power of faith behind prison walls.
On a crisp fall morning at a prison in rural Wakulla County that emphasizes religion and character, both men could ignore the tentacles of a widening criminal probe of Florida's prisons. Crosby, as shrewd a politician as the prison bureaucracy has ever produced, praised his boss' vision, and Bush returned the compliment. "I'm thankful for the leadership of the Department of Corrections," Bush told the crowd on the day before Thanksgiving last year.
Now, in the twilight of Bush's tenure as governor, Crosby's admission that he accepted kickbacks from a vendor who ran cash prison canteen services adds a stigma of scandal to the administration and is likely to put the former prison boss behind bars.
The lingering question is whether Bush had too much faith in Crosby for too long, and it's a question that might arise if Bush ever seeks national office. Bush demanded Crosby's resignation Feb. 10, a decision he coordinated with state and federal authorities.
"As the details come out, it'll be clear that it was the appropriate thing to do," the governor said at the time.
By then Crosby had been splitting kickbacks for more than a year with his friend and protege, regional prison boss Allen "A.C." Clark, according to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville on Wednesday. The payments grew from $1,000 to $12,000 a month, according to court documents, and reached $130,000 before the illicit cash flow to Crosby ended in August of last year. What investigators told Bush and when is still not known. But the governor remained publicly loyal to Crosby throughout 2005, even as revelations of steroid abuse, theft of property, no-show employees and a drunken brawl at an employee softball tournament rocked the nation's third-largest prison system.
"Don't let the 'blanks' get you down," Bush told Crosby in one widely quoted meeting last fall, encouraging him to ignore mounting criticism of his leadership. Agents began seizing cars and other property from homes of corrections employees. Three items were taken from Crosby's home. On Sept. 26, a reporter asked about "steroid issues" in the agency.
"That's like, three years ago," Bush replied.
"Are you confident that the DOC is being properly run?" Bush was asked. "I am. I am," Bush said, "and if there are any particular issues that people become aware of, they'll act on them. ... Maybe you guys get the FBI investigation fact sheets that are sent out on a daily basis. We don't get those."
When the sordid details of the FBI's investigation became public Wednesday, Bush was vacationing at his parents' vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine. A former aide said Crosby's downfall was a shattering blow to a governor, who had required executive branch employees to take a class in ethics.
"To say the governor was gravely disappointed would probably be a huge understatement," said Cory Tilley, a former deputy chief of staff for Bush. "It's the reason people are cynical about government."
Bush appointed Crosby to run the prison system on the eve of the governor's second inauguration in 2003. In announcing the pick, Bush highlighted Crosby's "experience and knowledge of the system."
It was a logical choice, in one sense. Crosby replaced the icy and aloof Michael Moore, an outsider who had run prisons in Texas and South Carolina and was unpopular through the Florida prison bureaucracy.
"Jimmy" Crosby, as Bush called him, was, for better or worse, a product of the system he was hired to run. Bald, stockily built and engaging, he seemed equally at ease at a fish fry or in the halls of the Capitol.
He was a University of Florida Gator with a journalism degree. He took an intake officer's job and made his way up to become warden of Florida State Prison and held almost every job in the ranks except corrections officer. He lived in Raiford, home to one of the three huge prisons that make up what is known as the "Iron Triangle." He was a darling of the corrections officers' union, the politically influential Police Benevolent Association.
Crosby's appointment was wildly popular with the corrections constituency, and with politicians, too. Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, who represents thousands of prison employees, described Crosby's selection in 2003 as "a dream come true," according to the Bradford County Telegraph.
Smith, a former state attorney who is a candidate for governor, recalled that morale was at rock bottom before Crosby arrived in 2003.
"I kept thinking this would be great for morale, and for a while it was," Smith said Thursday. "To find out that the boss was getting kickbacks -- it's got to be heartbreaking."
But if the selection of Crosby reassured the rank-and-file, it carried red flags as well.
Crosby got the job despite having been warden of Florida State Prison in 1999 when inmate Frank Valdes died in his death row cell after a beating. An investigation found no evidence Crosby was involved, and several guards were acquitted of criminal charges.
He aggressively played politics. He donated money to statewide candidates, was a delegate at the 2000 Republican National Convention and organized rallies for Bush in the governor's 2002 re-election, giving his appointment the air of a patronage plum.
"He never should have appointed the guy in the first place," said Ron McAndrew , who preceded Crosby as warden of Florida State Prison and has been one of Crosby's toughest critics.
Said Bush's spokesman, Alia Faraj: "It's unfortunate that the actions of a few detract from the good work of the majority."
McAndrew, a prison consultant who lives in Dunnellon, said he e-mailed Bush "seven pages of shortcomings" about Crosby in 2003 but all he got was a phone conversation with a member of Bush's transition team, Mike Hanna, who later became Crosby's chief of staff.
McAndrew, who still talks to prison employees, said reaction to the Crosby revelations was "jubilation," a sentiment largely shared by Crosby's replacement, James McDonough.
"Did rot enter into the system? Yes. Are we purging it out? Yes," McDonough said.
"Are we ashamed of what they did? Yes."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.
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