Six whistleblowers are suing the Florida Department of Corrections over a “gag order” issued by Secretary Julie Jones that they say violates state and federal law.
The legal challenge was filed Tuesday, one day before Jones told a Florida House panel the directive was necessary to shut down gossip and protect investigators.
Last week, Jones issued a staff “confidentiality agreement” barring inspectors from disclosing information about investigations to anyone except “those who have a need to know and only in connection with the official business of the Office of the Inspector General.” Violation of the policy could result in immediate firing.
The lawsuit was filed by six investigators who work for the agency’s inspector general, an official who answers to Gov. Rick Scott’s inspector general, Melinda Miguel. Miguel refused to grant four of the investigators whistleblower status last year, which prompted them to file a separate legal challenge claiming they were being retaliated against after exposing cover-ups involving the death of an inmate at a Panhandle prison.
On Wednesday, Jones defended her directive after being questioned about it during an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee.
Jones said she met with Department of Corrections Inspector General Jeffery Beasley in December prior to taking over her post and asked him if he had whistleblower complaints and if the whistleblowers claimed they were being retaliated against. His answer to both questions was yes, she said. She also said Beasley told her he did not have confidentiality agreements with the inspectors.
Jones, a veteran law-enforcement officer who previously headed the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and came out of retirement at Scott’s behest to take over the embattled corrections agency last month, said that such agreements are the norm in other agencies. The ban on disclosing information about investigations helps protect inspectors who may be pressured by more senior staff, she indicated.
“You have an inspector that has no specific rank is investigating presumed wrongdoing inside the institution. Someone of rank walks up and asks, ‘So what are you doing? What’s going on? Who are you investigating?’ And that individual needs to go look back and rely on a confidentiality agreement to say, ‘I can’t talk to you about that’ and feel real good about it,” she said. “Even in situations that are unfounded, you don’t want gossip. You don’t want water-cooler talk. You don’t want anyone talking, ‘I investigated so-and-so. Guess what they were accused of doing.’ It’s not professional … .”
But she conceded at least one misstep regarding the issuance of the directive, which came just two days after a Senate panel grilled Beasley.
“The timing was terrible. I just decided it’s just time to rip the Band-aid off and go forward. It was not intended as a gag order. It does not keep those investigators from collaborating on information,” Jones told the House panel on Wednesday, adding that the agreement also does not prohibit investigators from speaking to lawmakers. “So it was more or less, I think a good housekeeping piece toward how do you guarantee someone’s safety and their integrity when they come forward with concerns and keep that information confidential.”
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the inspectors’ lawyer, Steven Andrews, argued that Jones exceeded her authority by requiring the confidentiality agreement because Florida law requires that inspectors general offices be independent of agency oversight or control.
Andrews in the lawsuit also accused Jones of, among other things, misusing her position by trying to keep the inspectors from exposing wrongdoing at Florida prisons. One of the inspectors in the lawsuit described the directive as a “virtual gag order.”
“It is clear that the Staff Member Confidentiality Agreement was enacted to confer a special benefit or privilege on Inspector General’s such that they are prohibited from reporting misconduct outside of the agency including staffing of institutions below critical needs standards and ongoing prisoner abuse,” Andrews wrote.