Saturday, January 12, 2008

Broken agency needed this man

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 12, 2008


Drunken brawls at softball tournaments. Wanton beatings of inmates. Guards and assistant wardens on the take. A kickback scheme that went to the very top of the agency.

This was almost routine in the Florida Department of Corrections when Jim McDonough showed up 23 months ago.

If there was ever a point in the history of state government when the man and the job were a perfect fit for each other, this was it.

In this broken agency, a relatively tiny number of miscreants and incompetents gave the majority of decent workers a bad name. But the dysfunctional DOC needed an institutional kick in the teeth.

Lucky for people in Florida, McDonough was willing to take on this challenging assignment for the princely sum of less than $126,000 a year. He could have said no. The public servant in him said yes.

A tough, dutiful, fearless and at times supremely stubborn former Army infantryman, McDonough had been working as Gov. Jeb Bush's drug policy adviser, tracking use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs by kids and adults.

Needless to say, Bush's oversight of the prison system stands as one of the biggest bureaucratic blunders of his eight years.

His decision to stand by good ol' boy Secretary Jimmy Crosby - almost until the feds hauled Crosby off to prison for taking kickbacks - did untold damage to the agency. At least he picked McDonough before leaving office.

Now McDonough, 61, is resigning, and leaving behind a gaping hole in Gov. Charlie Crist's administration.

He agreed to stay on when Crist succeeded Bush a year ago, first for six months, then for a year. But he's had it, and he wants to get on with his life.

Two years ago, the compactly built McDonough swooped in with a zero-tolerance policy for corruption and incompetence. He broke up the culture of playing softball on state time, began random drug and steroid testing, and broke up a racket in which inmates got transferred to cushier prisons by greasing palms.

He watched wearily as the courts stopped executions because of questions about lethal injection.

He pushed for more drug treatment, job training and literacy for the 95,000 people behind bars. But he was hamstrung by a deepening economic slump that left no new money for such prevention initiatives.

McDonough was far from perfect. Sure, he's the guy you'd want to be in a foxhole with, but he was hamfisted at dealing with the legislators who control his purse strings.

He thought he could take over PRIDE, the St. Petersburg-based inmate worker program that he said was performing poorly. But PRIDE has clout, and the state takeover won't happen.

As news of McDonough's resignation spread Wednesday, individuals who over the years have battled ferociously with the prison system voiced regret.

"He showed tremendous leadership for a beleaguered agency," said Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami. "It is unfortunate he is departing, for there is still a lot to be done. He will be missed, and he will be hard to replace."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

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