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    Prison chief sets sights on Texas

    By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 22, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Michael Moore, whose 2 1/2 years as Florida corrections secretary have been marked by turmoil ranging from the beating death of an inmate to allegations of racism in the ranks, is seeking to run the prison system in his native Texas.

    Moore, whose career began three decades ago as a Texas correctional officer, is one of five finalists interviewed Wednesday for the job of executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. A three-member selection panel has decided which one of the five it likes best and will make a recommendation to the full state prison board at a meeting June 28.

    Two in-house finalists, including Gary Johnson, the current No. 2 Texas official, are in the running, along with prison executives in Arizona and Missouri. The Texas job pays up to $150,000 a year.

    Moore, 52, said he wants to return to Texas for family reasons: Four of his five children and his grandchildren live there, as do his elderly parents.

    "I went and talked to Gov. Bush, and he was most gracious. It was a family-type matter," Moore said. "We love Florida, and I love the system here. It was just a matter of a family situation."

    Moore's daily schedule, which is sent to Department of Corrections employees, showed him going to a ceremonial signing of law enforcement bills by Gov. Jeb Bush at the Capitol on Wednesday morning -- the kind of event where Moore's attendance would be expected. But, in fact, Moore was in Texas, interviewing for the Texas job, which he said had been posted only recently.

    "This came up pretty quick," Moore said.

    Moore was recruited by Bush in 1999 from his former job as head of South Carolina's prisons. He was on the job only six months when Frank Valdes, an unruly death row prisoner at the state's toughest institution, Florida State Prison, was killed. Valdes died of massive injuries at the hands of guards who were trying to move him to a different cell. Seven officers are facing second-degree murder charges.

    Valdes' death brought national shame on the system and hastened changes, such as the closing of the notorious X Wing where Valdes was housed, and the videotaping of all cell extractions.

    Moore has made frequent administrative moves at agency headquarters. A month ago, he promoted Peggy Ball from budget director to his chief of staff, making her an equal to Deputy Secretary Mike Wolfe. Moore said many state agencies are set up the same way and that Wolfe had too much responsibility under the old setup.

    "It has been tumultuous, but in fairness, he's been asked to make some radical changes, and most people don't handle change well," said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the bargaining agent for the state's 15,000 correctional officers and about 3,000 probation officers. "Early on, he had a number of challenges that other secretaries haven't had."

    Murrell said that if Moore leaves, many rank-and-file employees will want Bush to hire a well-known Floridian as his replacement. One logical candidate is Richard Dugger, who's now director of institutions under Moore and who served as corrections secretary more than a decade ago under the last Republican governor, Bob Martinez.

    "Florida is unique," Murrell said. "I think it would be helpful if we had a home-grown person who understands the differences between us and other southern states -- someone who's aware of how Florida politics operate."

    Moore's wife, Susan, is a secretary in the Department of Children and Families. Reached at her office Thursday, Mrs. Moore said: "I don't know that we'll go back. We'll have to see what happens."

    In seeking to swap his job in Florida for a similar one in Texas, Moore is chasing bigger challenges, and bigger problems. The Texas penal system is the nation's second-largest, with 147,000 inmates, nearly 40,000 employees and a $2.6-billion budget.

    Wayne Scott, the Texas prison superintendent who is resigning, called it a "high-stress, high-burnout position," and told the Huntsville Item newspaper that when he took the job in 1996, he planned to leave after five years.

    Texas executes death row inmates faster than any other state, a record that its former governor, President Bush, was frequently called upon to explain during the 2000 campaign. In addition, a daring escape by seven inmates from a maximum-security prison in December focused renewed attention on staffing ratios in the Texas system.

    George W. Bush's successor in Austin, Gov. Rick Perry, vetoed a bill last weekend that would have prohibited the executions of the mentally retarded, saying adequate safeguards existed. Gov. Jeb Bush has signed similar legislation in Florida.

    "The governor's not going to stand in anyone's way of a wonderful new opportunity," said Jeb Bush's spokeswoman, Katie Baur. "If it happens, we'd be very happy for him. We think he does a great job here."

    -- Times researchers Karen Baird and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

    Michael Moore's troubled tenure

    JULY 1999: Death row inmate Frank Valdes is fatally beaten in a confrontation with corrections officers. Seven officers face second-degree murder charges.

    FEBRUARY 2000: Florida switches from the electric chair to lethal injection after a 344-pound inmate bled from the nose during his execution. In June 2000, the third lethal injection goes awry when technicians have difficulty inserting a needle into Bennie Demps.

    DECEMBER 2000: State auditors say about 24 percent of offenders on probation have escaped supervision. Auditors also say Moore's reorganization faltered, creating distrust among employees and failing to save money. APRIL 2001: African-American guards sue, claiming rampant racism in the prison system and saying the department has retaliated against them. Lawsuits come after disclosures by the St. Petersburg Times, including allegations from officers and inmates of a racist clique of officers who wear knotted cord key chains.

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