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The new architect overseeing prisons

The interim Corrections secretary aims to clean up a corruption-plagued department.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published March 12, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Retired Army Col. James R. McDonough survived shrapnel wounds in Vietnam, led elite troops in war-torn Rwanda and Bosnia, and stood up to President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, as the interim secretary of the Department of Corrections, he's faced with a challenge that, in its own way, may be as tough as the others: taking on his department's softball culture.

"I've been hearing much too much about the elevation of softball prowess as a god unto itself," McDonough said in an interview last week.

Softball is taken seriously at the department, and it has been at the root of serious problems. It may have corrupted employee-run perk funds; its postgame parties have produced brawls in which people have been injured; it has allegedly spurred steroid sales and prompted the hiring of ghost employees paid for their athletic ability.

Plucked from comparative obscurity as the state's drug czar, McDonough, 59, became the department's first secretary in some 50 years without any prison system experience. He now plans to stamp out nepotism, corruption and cronyism within the 26,000-employee department.

He started the same day federal and state investigators descended upon the office of former Secretary James V. Crosby as part of an investigation of prison contracts with private companies. Those contracts are widely believed to be the final straw that prompted Gov. Jeb Bush to fire Crosby.

Investigations have focused on allegations of unfairly awarded no-bid contracts and employee use of state resources for personal purposes on Crosby's watch.

McDonough, who has been on the job for four weeks, says his first order of business is changing the culture at the department.

He has fired or demoted at least a dozen employees. He got rid of bluejean Fridays and froze an estimated $1.5-million in 50 employee-run bank accounts. The funds are supposed to be used to buoy staff morale, paying for employee sporting events or charity events of their choice. He's also resurrecting forgotten policies that ban nepotism and favor merit-based promotion.

"The institution can make some cultural choices. You can either adopt a professional culture or you can adopt the prisoners' culture and try to be better at their culture than they are," said McDonough, a soft-spoken, small man with a shiny bald head and animated eyebrows. "I want to make sure we adopt the professional culture."

McDonough knows a bit about controversy. He was plucked from the Clinton administration at a time when he was feeling a bit "awkward" there.

In 1996 McDonough went to work for the White House drug czar after retiring from nearly three decades of military service. There was talk that he was too intellectual to make general.

Besides his West Point degree - McDonough proudly sports a blue Class of '69 ring - and a political science master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he's also written three books. His Vietnam memoir Platoon Leader was noted by the New York Times and turned into a movie.

Yet, while McDonough was working for Clinton, Kenneth W. Starr published his report alleging that Clinton received oral sex while talking to a lawmaker about protecting funding for troops in Bosnia. Some of those troops had been under McDonough's command in 1995.

McDonough wrote a scathing criticism of the president that ran in the Wall Street Journal and earned him more national media attention than all his years of military service ever did.

"I think about it a lot; I tend not to be insubordinate," McDonough said. "To realize that my commander in chief - whom I was then working for in the White House - so casually committed such an action, I felt that if I remained silent about that, that I was condoning it," he said.

Five months later, McDonough moved to Tallahassee to join Gov. Jeb Bush's new administration.

In seven years, McDonough kept a low profile as drug czar. He has crafted drug policy, and once suggested using fungus to rid the state of marijuana plants. State officials worried it would kill other, desirable plants, and the idea went nowhere.

Concerning his abrupt move to Corrections, McDonough reveals little more than that the governor tapped him a few days before the Feb. 10 move occurred.

He starts work at dawn many mornings and works well past 5 p.m. While he's shaping up the Corrections Department, he's still the state drug czar.

On his desk sits a report listing Corrections employees living in state housing. Highlighted in yellow are librarians and secretaries who don't fit the definition of those who belong in state housing. He plans to review those cases closely.

He's also awaiting a report from a committee he appointed to study better accountability for the employee clubs.

"I don't want anyone extorted into giving money. I don't want phony fundraisers where people feel their jobs are at stake if they don't raise the requisite amount of funds," McDonough said.

McDonough's recent dismissals and talk of weeding out corruption have made some employees nervous.

State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, echoed the sentiment during a Senate committee meeting last week.

"They're really down right now, they're as down as I've seen them," said Smith, who is friends with Crosby. "They worry about their futures."

McDonough answered that if morale is down it is because employees felt suppressed by the old regime. He said he thinks the majority of the department consists of "good people."

"I'm getting positive reinforcement that people are feeling better about opportunities for their good work to be recognized and come out," he said. Already, McDonough is being second-guessed by critics who feed an Internet rumor mill. Specifically, they're gabbing about why Bradley Tunnell, son of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner, was demoted and not fired, even though he admitted punching a fellow corrections officer. McDonough said he would review the fight further, but the case became moot Friday, when Tunnell resigned.

Others like what they see in McDonough but want to see more.

"I'm on my hands and knees applauding him for what he has done thus far," said Ron McAndrews, a retired warden and fierce critic of former department head Crosby. "I think it's admirable."

[Last modified March 12, 2006, 22:38:02]


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