At least they ran it like a business

Published January 30, 2007

Keep in mind this figure: nearly $13-million.

That's how much money the state of Florida (meaning, you and me) overpaid to two private prison companies over an eight-year period.

According to an audit, we paid the two companies for:

- Salaries for vacant positions.

- Maintenance that wasn't done.

- Raises that weren't paid out.

We even paid extra overhead to cover the "burden" of accepting the raises!

The two companies are the GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America, paid for running five state prisons.

Now, when this audit came out, here are a couple of things that could have happened. First of all, the bosses of these two companies could have said:

"Oh, my gosh! We had no intention of accepting such overpayments. Here is a check."

In the alternative, the governor, or our Legislature, or even some high-ranking state bureaucrat, could have declared:

"This is a total outrage! The heck with the lawyers and the contracts - if these two companies do not pay back this money at once, then we will run them out of Florida on a rail, and they will not get another dime."

But, of course, nobody said anything like that. The 2005 audit quickly receded into history.

Until last week.

Last week, we learned that the state has negotiated a repayment from one of the companies involved, the GEO Group. (We're still negotiating with the other company.)

Here is the amount of the repayment: $402,501.

Let's review.

Overpayments, $13-million.

Settlement, $402,501.

That isn't a repayment. It's a tip.

To his limited credit, one of our state senators, Victor Crist, R-Tampa, asked for an investigation.

I give "limited" credit to Crist, because this was the fault of the Legislature in the first place.

In the early 1990s, we set up an outfit called the Correctional Privatization Commission to fork over prisons to the private sector.

Naturally, the members of the new outfit tripped over themselves to get cozy with their private-sector buddies.

Or as the audit puts it, the Correctional Privatization Commission "consistently made questionable contract concessions to the vendors."

In 2004, the Legislature abolished the commission and turned over its functions to the Department of Management Services, the agency that negotiated this repayment.

That department's boss, Linda H. South, when asked about the paltry settlement, said that without her agency's "due diligence," there would be no repayment at all.

Ah. So we are supposed to be grateful.

The moral of the story is the same as it has always been:

We need accountants and auditors - on the front end.

We need strict ethical rules.

We need government in the sunshine. We need every scrap of paper and dollar paid by the government to be a matter of public record.

Lastly, in forking over tax dollars to the private sector, we need to follow Ronald Reagan's policy toward the Russkies: "Trust, but verify."

In other words, we don't need to "run the government like a business." That is far too low a standard. We need to run the government like, you know, the government.