Federal And State Public-Corruption Investigators Are Conducting A Massive Examination Of The State's $2 Billion Prison System That's Plagued With Accusations Of Theft, Steroid-Dealing And No-Show Jobs For Intramural Softball Players.
SNEADS - In the nation's third-largest state prison system, Florida's convicts are watched over by some corrections officers who could face prison time themselves as federal and state investigators look into an Egyptian-based steroid ring, rampant pilfering, misused inmate labor and a no-show job for a prison-league softball player.
The FBI and state public-corruption investigators say they're examining every aspect of the Florida Department of Corrections, all the way up to two men Gov. Jeb Bush has chosen for top positions: prisons chief James Crosby and his right-hand man and friend, Allen Clark, who oversaw North Florida's prisons until he resigned Aug. 30.
Neither has been charged with a crime in the investigation that spans at least six North Florida counties, chiefly the prison belt area known as the ``Iron Triangle.''
So far, seven people have pleaded guilty in federal court to steroid-selling charges connected to the prison system. At least two guards face federal theft and embezzlement charges for their alleged role in pocketing proceeds from the prison system's metal recycling. Another was hit with state theft charges in the pay-to-play softball caper.
And last month, state agents served search warrants to seize engine parts, air-conditioning equipment and scrap metal from vehicles and trailers owned by five guards and Clark. An inmate told investigators the guards made him manufacture trailers -- one of which was used in a guard's lawn-care business -- using prison equipment and supplies.
From the federal and state court cases and affidavits to the prison's personnel files and Internet chat sites, the investigation has shone a spotlight on the predator-and-prey world of a prison system fueled partly by testosterone, politics, cronyism and softball.
''These are not the best days at the Department of Corrections,'' Crosby said.
They're not the best of times for him, either: Investigators asked him recently for a firewood rack, a leaf blower and a ladder as part of the probe. He complied. Crosby even thought of resigning last week but was bucked up by Bush, who called him ''a good leader'' and told the embattled secretary: 'Don't let the `blanks' get you down.''
Bush has said any apparent wrongdoing lies in the past and that he's unaware of any problems to blame on Crosby, who was appointed in 2003. The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement will say little about the case.
Crosby was initially silent, too -- a far cry from 1999, when he was warden of Florida State Prison in Starke. During his watch, inmate Frank Valdez was apparently killed in a violent prison-cell extraction by guards, who were later acquitted by a jury in another county court of the Iron Triangle.
Crosby's predecessor at the prison, Ron McAndrew, claims that before he left, he verbally warned superiors that Crosby, Clark and Clark's ''goon squad'' would kill someone. ''They were violent, and it was a question of when they would seriously hurt or kill someone, not if,'' McAndrew said.
Crosby has dismissed McAndrew's attacks as personally motivated. Clark couldn't be reached for comment.
With an occasional assist from Crosby, Clark has survived years of internal investigations for allegedly beating inmates, getting prisoners to build a ''Gator room'' in his state-owned quarters for parties, taking prison radios to provide private security for Bush's 1999 inauguration and threatening underlings in a ballot-box-stuffing scheme to win control of an employee fund -- subsequently used to pay for hotels, travel, beer and ''bat girls'' for his prison's softball team.
Internal prison department investigators determined Clark committed wrongdoing at the time, but they were overruled by higher ups, Crosby said.
A high-school dropout, Clark rose from a lowly job that paid less than $15,000 in 1988 to a $94,000 directorship of all North Florida prisons. Bush selected him in 2001 to sit on the Judicial Nominating Commission to help select judges.
A brawny five-foot-nine weighing in at 230 pounds, Clark was involved in a drunken brawl at a Florida Council on Crime and Delinquency dinner on April 1. Clark and two peers allegedly punched and kicked a former colleague, James O'Bryan. The FDLE agent investigating the case, Tim Westveer, urged O'Bryan to press charges. O'Bryan declined because his wife works for the prison department, and he feared retribution.
''We know of the intimidation. . . . We've got to get Clark stopped,'' Westveer said during his interview with O'Bryan in April. ``Things go higher than Clark, but we've got to get him out of the system or at least try so other people will step up.''
Westveer added that the beating ``is part of a bigger puzzle.''
All the pieces started to fall in place Oct. 27, 2003, when a young woman called the Clay County Sheriff's Office to help her move out of the apartment she shared with Benjamin Zoltowski, a guard at Florida State Prison. When the deputy arrived, the girlfriend showed him ''numerous'' gallon-size freezer bags of blue-and-pink steroid pills. That was the break federal investigators needed. For about six months, they had been monitoring steroid-laden packages sent from Egypt to guards in the Iron Triangle towns. The guards would pay their dealer, officer-turned-bodyguard Clayton Manning, by wiring money to the pseudonym ''Amal Shawki,'' according to their plea agreements.
Soon, seven people were busted. Most of them were connected to the softball team, once coached by Clark.
Then one of the guards started to talk -- this time about two peers who were pocketing money earned by selling metal from the prison to Commercial Metals Co. in Jacksonville. An FBI affidavit identifies the two as Theodore J. Foray Jr. and Paul Lamar Miller.
Last month came another tip: A man named Mark Guerra was hired by the Apalachee Correctional Institute in Sneads to play softball. He was supposed to work as a temp in the library, but FDLE Inspector Travis Lawson determined Guerra never checked out a key to the library and wasn't seen by the librarian for the four weeks he was on the payroll. He was arrested for theft.
Guerra's father-in-law, Pete Beloat, said Guerra is being set up by a rival prison director angry that Guerra helped his prison win the softball tournament in the spring. He said Guerra never intended to break the law, and he wondered why the higher-ups who did the hiring aren't in trouble.
''If they're after A.C. Clark or Secretary Crosby, this is pretty weak stuff to bust a guy like Mark,'' Beloat said. ``Why do the little guys always get in trouble?''
Case in point: Col. Richard Frye. In Guerra's arrest report, Frye was apparently not interviewed, even though he had volunteered to donate some of his vacation time to Guerra. Along with Clark's, Frye's vehicle was scoured for engine parts by FDLE agents in September. Frye was also identified in FDLE and Tallahassee police reports as one of the people who joined Clark in beating O'Bryan.
Amid all this, Capt. Keith Davison, who worked at New River Correctional Institution near Starke, was found dead of an apparent suicide Oct. 4 on a country road under an oak tree. He had been fired the day before for allegedly misusing prison property. Davison was suspected by the Bradford County Sheriff's Office of raping a co-worker.
All of it has pained Crosby. He said the revelations could damage morale, but he won't pass ''value judgments'' on what has happened.
''I don't mind taking responsibility for things that I have responsibility for,'' Crosby said. ``But you have 25,000 to 26,000 employees out there, and you can't take responsibility for every individual's actions.''
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