Lesson for next governor in Crosby's fall

Published July 15, 2006

The tawdry tale of James Crosby, the prison boss who took kickbacks from a snack vendor, sullies Gov. Jeb Bush's record in more ways than one.

Crosby has admitted breaking the law, and he's going to prison. He misled Bush, his boss. He violated the trust of the many honest, hard-working men and women in the Department of Corrections.

He created a bureaucratic monster in regional prison director Allen Clark, who mostly drank beer and played softball when he wasn't busy recommending judges as a Bush appointee to a Judicial Nominating Commission. He took payoffs, too.

But the larger story of the Clark-Crosby scandal is what it says about the Bush administration's zeal for outsourcing, preferably without competitive bids.

Under Crosby and Bush, the Florida prison system became a privatization laboratory - long on projected cost savings, short on accountability.

First, Aramark secured control of prison food operations. Then came the outsourcing of pharmaceuticals and pill splitting for inmates' prescriptions, a venture begun on Lawton Chiles' watch as governor but expanded greatly under Crosby.

Then, Crosby sowed the seeds of his downfall by outsourcing prison canteen operations to Keefe Commissary Network, which hired lobbyist Don Yaeger in 2004.

As a state audit showed, the Keefe contract generated millions in revenue to the state, but it was another sweetheart deal. Rather than seek competitive bids, Crosby & Co. sought proposals from three firms.

"As a matter of good practice, the department should competitively procure these services," the auditor general wrote in a 2004 report on the Keefe contract.

The rest is familiar: Keefe subcontracted with Eddie Dugger's American Institutional Services, the company identified in court documents only as a co-conspirator. The feds say Clark and Crosby shared $130,000 in illegal cash from prison snack sales over a two-year period.

That's a lot of pork rinds.

When Keefe spun off part of its contract to Dugger, nobody was looking, and Clark and Crosby knew it.

Crosby's successor - the button-down, by-the-book retired Army Col. Jim McDonough - has received a stack of complaints about the quality and cost of Keefe's products. To his credit, McDonough refuses to drink the no-bid Kool-Aid.

"I definitely want the Keefe contract bid," McDonough told an aide in a May e-mail.

Crosby's downfall is a cautionary tale, especially for the four men seeking to succeed Bush as governor: The most obvious choice for a high-level state job may not be the best choice.

Crosby was engaging, astute and well connected. He was the inside candidate who followed an outsider when the prisons needed a morale boost.

He had political juice, too, as a Republican convention delegate in 2000 and rally organizer during Bush's 2002 re-election campaign.

He had a way of dodging controversy. As warden at Florida State Prison in 1999, he was on vacation when inmate Frank Valdes was beaten and stomped to death.

At the infamous softball brawl at a Tallahassee armory last year, Crosby had just left when the punches began.

His demise is especially sad to Bernice Hickey of Butler, Pa., who advocates on behalf of inmates and their families, even though her son has long since been released.

She said Crosby's two predecessors wouldn't return her calls, but Crosby was attentive to and concerned about her complaints about inmates being abused by guards.

"The doors were closed. He opened those doors," Hickey said. "People need to know that there's a good side to Secretary Crosby. He has a heart."

But when those stacks of cash from the snack sales began arriving, Crosby couldn't say no.

Steve Bousquet is the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief. He can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.