By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
He says he paid his way while hanging out with a lobbyist.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's top prison official has gone to concerts and sporting events with a lobbyist for clients seeking business with prisons.
But Corrections Secretary James Crosby says he paid his own way and that he and Don Yaeger, a Sports Illustrated writer who also runs a lobbying firm, do not have a social relationship.
"I paid for my own ticket," Crosby said. "We have not routinely gone places and done things."
Crosby is not the first high-ranking state official to socialize with lobbyists. Jerry Regier resigned as head of the Department of Children and Families last year after he and aides went to events, sometimes at their own expense, as guests of Yaeger and some other lobbyists.
Crosby's problem is timing. It seems everyone is looking over the shoulder of the 53-year-old former prison warden from Starke.
The FBI and state agents are scrutinizing a prison system that has been a regular target of investigations over the years on allegations ranging from civil rights abuses to the misuse of inmate labor.
The latest probe centers on alleged steroid use by corrections officers, alleged misuse of prison money and a fracas at a corrections banquet in April involving Allen "A.C." Clark, a regional prison director repeatedly promoted by Crosby. The probe may have hastened Clark's recent resignation as the supervisor of 14 prisons in North Florida.
Crosby is under scrutiny for another reason.
A lucrative contract for inmate health care is on the line, and lawmakers, lobbyists and vendors are all keenly interested.
A House committee that oversees prison spending will hold a hearing today on a contract for medical, dental, pharmacy and mental health for 17,000 inmates in South Florida prisons for five years. Yaeger has a client who wants a piece of the action, but others do too.
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Competition is cutthroat among lobbyists and vendors for lucrative state contracts. Almost anything is fair game.
That's why the tale of the lobbyist and the prison boss spread quickly.
Both Crosby and Yaeger find themselves as human ammunition in a high-stakes battle between rival vendors.
Crosby acknowledges that he brought his wife to see the rock band Aerosmith, country singer George Strait, and a rodeo at Yaeger's skybox at the Leon County Civic Center. He also says he saw a Florida State-North Carolina State football game and FSU-Florida baseball game with the lobbyist.
Crosby said Yaeger invited him to the events, more than a year ago, and he obeyed Gov. Jeb Bush's ethics policy requiring him to repay the lobbyist. He says he has the canceled checks to prove it.
Yaeger declined to comment. But if the lobbyist's hobnobbing with Crosby at concerts and ball games was meant to boost his clients' chances of success, that hasn't happened.
As it turns out, Yaeger's client is displeased with Crosby.
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Yaeger represents a Miami firm, Medical Care Consortium, which is affiliated with Armor Correctional Health Services, a Broward County firm interested in the South Florida prison contract.
But Armor says the state's bid requirements are "unreasonably restrictive," and the firm can't apply for the work because Crosby's staff requires companies to have served a daily inmate population of 10,000 for at least one of the past three years.
Armor can't qualify, even though the firm was recently hired to serve Hillsborough's 4,800-inmate population.
Three days after Armor was formed in July, the Broward Sheriff's Office sought bids to provide health care to 5,500 jail inmates.
Sheriff Ken Jenne then revised the Broward proposal, making it easier for the newly formed Armor to qualify, The Miami Herald reported.
Armor won the contract. Col. James Wimberly, the county's detention chief, said Broward is happy with Armor's work.
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The health care firm with the most to lose in the latest vendor battle is Yaeger's main competitor, Wexford Health Sources, a Pittsburgh firm that won the South Florida contract in 2001.
Wexford is fighting to keep caring for sick prisoners in South Florida, but it has a troubled past with the Corrections Department.
The Legislature's watchdog agency called Wexford's medical care "problematic" a year ago and warned that without closer oversight, the state was inviting another federal lawsuit over quality of care.
Things got so bad that the state threatened to impose monetary damages on Wexford, but a state official monitoring the contract, Larry Purintun, cited "substantial improvement" in July. By then, the Legislature had inserted a provision in the new state budget requiring that the contract be put out to bid next month.
"We've continually improved ourselves over 41/2 years," said Mark Hale, Wexford's chief operating officer in Florida.
Wexford's setback was thought to have been a golden opportunity for Armor, which has gained a foothold in the inmate health-care industry as more Florida inmates are serving longer sentences.
Fresh from displacing Wexford in Broward, Armor won its second big contract last month in Hillsborough County after the sheriff's office revised its proposal, eliminating price as a deciding factor. Armor replaced Prison Health Services.
Col. David Parrish of the Hillsborough sheriff's office, who has overseen county jails since 1981, said price is often overrated as a factor in choosing the best vendor.
"Just because they're the lowest bid doesn't mean they're going to be able to produce," Parrish said.
The Legislature doesn't see it that way.
Lawmakers wrote language into the current state budget ordering Crosby's agency to select vendors through competitive bids. The state must hire the companies with the lowest price, reducing the discretion by Crosby's staff and influence by lobbyists for vendors.
Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, who chairs the House panel overseeing prison spending, said lawmakers have found serious deficiencies in other prison contracts, including one for repackaging pharmaceuticals in prisons.
Two months ago, a politically connected Pasco County firm, Pro-Tech Monitoring, was suspected by its rivals of being favored to win a major contract to provide electronic monitoring of sex offenders. But Pro-Tech's bids were too high and the company wasn't hired, and the two firms that won contracts did not have lobbyists.
"I really don't see how lobbyists help when you're working on bids like this," Crosby said.
Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.
--Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or at 850 224-7263.