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Judge: Prison system 'violated public trust'

An "appalled" state judge said Thursday that Florida’s prison system "blatantly violated the public trust" by secretly negotiating with a new firm to provide for inmates’ mental health. Leon County Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield said the actions by the Department of Corrections were "at best, offensive, and at worst, illegal" in its secret dealings with Correctional Medical Services of St. Louis. Sheffield's full seven-page opinion is here.

But the judge denied the request by the current contractor, MHM Correctional Services, for a temporary injunction to block award of a five-year contract to CMS through a 120-day purchase order starting July 1. The judge said MHM still has legal remedies because it has a bid protest pending before a state hearing officer, and that further legal delays "would cause confusion (and) disorder."

Attorney General Bill McCollum, whose office defended the prison system's conduct, had no immediate comment. A spokeswoman for Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said the agency had not yet seen Sheffield’s order.

Sheffield was elected to the circuit bench. Ironically, the candidate he defeated, Lisa Raleigh, was the assistant attorney general representing the prison system in the case. At a hearing last week, Sheffield raised that issue, and Raleigh said she did not think it presented a conflict of interest.

"The people lost today due to the worst abuse of power inaginable," MHM attorney Chris Kise said. "The department engaged in secret negotiations, blatant violations of th epublic trust and unsonscionable practices, then hid behind the very laws designed to protect the people. A truly sad day for justice." Kise served as a top legal advisor to Charlie Crist as governor and attorney general. 

UPDATE: CMS issued a statement that said denial of the injunction "will allow the state and CMS to continue to move forward to deliver quality mental healthcare services for inmate patients." The company added that "the negotiation process the state has used is specifically allowed by Florida law and will save the state $1.7 million in the first year alone compared to what MHM has been charging the state for the same services."

-- Steve Bousquet