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As the oldest court diversion program in Miami-Dade County, The Advocate Program has managed over the years to receive the support of many powerful people in the community as well as earning the ire of a small, but determined group of detractors who, starting in 2006, undertook efforts to challenge the Program’s efforts to renew their contract providing Misdemeanor Probation Services for the 11th Judicial Circuit.


The Advocate Program had initially received a 5 year contract to provide these services in 1998, but when the contract expired in 2002, rather than the 11th Judicial Circuit issuing an RFP to solicit bids for a new contract, the old contract was arbitrarily extended through an Administrative Court Order issued by then Chief Judge Joseph Farina.


The Order allowed them to continue operating for an additional 5 years under the terms of the original contract.

In an ethics case in which this Order became an issue, when the Ethics Commission questioned Linda Kelly Kearnon, the General Counsel for the 11th Judicial Circuit, about the length of time that passed before the process for a new contract was initiated, she blamed the extension “on changes in the administration at the county level.”


By the time a decision was made to issue a new RFP, a belief had taken hold among some folks - including folks with the Metro Traffic Safety Institute, one of the companies submitting a bid - that the refusal to put the contract out to bid was not a result of “changes in the administration at the county level,” but rather because of a cozy relationship between David McGriff, the Executive Director of The Advocate Program and a handful of judges, including Circuit Judge Farina and County Court Judge Sam Slom, who for the last 16 years has served as the Administrative Judge for the Criminal Division of County Court, and who was openly alleged to be providing protection for The Advocate Program because Slom and McGriff had been fraternity brothers at the University of Florida.


That allegation about Slom was part of a letter widely circulated within the local legal community by lobbyist and judicial campaign consultant Bob Levy in the summer of 2006. The letter eventually prompted a Cone Of Silence Investigation conducted by the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission.


(NOTE: I cannot continue without first acknowledging the death of Bob Levy several weeks ago from cancer.  His inclusion in this story comes at an unfortunate time, but it’s a story that cannot be told without his inclusion.)


Levy, during his own deposition taken by the Ethics Commission admitted - without identifying the individual - that he received the letter from someone associated with The Metro Traffic Safety Institute - a company also bidding on the contract -  and that he had agreed to circulate the letter because based on what he had been told about the RFP bidding process, “...it seemed to me, both what I read here and what I was told that this was a pretty dirty deal.”


Levy also admitted to carrying the letter around with him “for probably the better part of a month,” and giving it to anyone - including judges - that he suspected might be in a position to initiate an investigation over the allegations made in the letter.


His actions led to the Cone of Silence investigation when Judge Beth Bloom, one of the people Levy gave the letter to, and who happened to be a member of the RFP Selection Committee, turned the letter over to a representative of the Procurement Department.


Here is a copy of that letter.

After an 11 month investigation, the Ethics Commission reached a deal with Levy allowing him to plead guilty to one count of “unregistered lobbying,” and a plea of “no contest” to his contact with Judge Beth Bloom.


Levy was fined $750.00, plus $1000 in investigative costs. (The complete collection of the documents associated with this case, including the Memorandum of Investigation, Levy’s deposition and the Settlement Agreement can be read HERE.)


Parenthetically, Bob Levy, whose prior activities do not seem to have hampered his serving as a campaign manager/political consultant to numerous judges and the State Attorney also happened to be the person delegated to respond to my initial letter to Katherine Fernandez-Rundle when I asked her to explain what had happened to the $24,892.85 in unspent campaign funds that she had deposited in the “donor assisted” Katherine Fernandez-Rundle Fund at the Miami Foundation.


In March of 2007, the Selection Committee ignored the allegations raised by the letter and recommended that the Board of County Commissioners approve  a new 5 year contract with 3 - 1 year contract extensions to The Advocate Program. The value of the contract was estimated to be $7 million for the first 5 years.


PART II - THE ADVOCATE PROGRAM GETS A LITTLE HELP FROM JUDGE SAM SLOM, AFTER METRO TRAFFIC CAME OUT SWINGING FOR THE SECOND TIME


In June of 2012, a decision was made to exercise all of the 3 - 1 year contract extensions at one time.


That decision in part was prompted by an email request made by David McGriff, the Executive Director of The Advocate Program to Maria Carballeira, a Contract Officer with the Procurement Department, that included a reference to the interest of competitors bidding on a new contract.

As for the competitors that McGriff claimed to be so worried about when the RFP was finally issued, only a single out-of-state company that provides similar services in several other Florida counties submitted a bid.


Three days after she received McGriff’s letter regarding expediting the approval of the contract extensions, Contract Officer Maria Carballeira sent McGriff the following email informing  him that she had run it by Judge Slom, and gotten approval to go through with the 3-1 year extensions.

Instead of seeking an independent review including “verifiable audit measures” like Lopez requested, Maria Carballeira, the RFP’s Contract Manager forwarded Lopez’s letter to Judge Slom, who in short order responded to her, first with a cover email issuing his standard disclaimer that because he and David McGriff had been Pi Lambda Phi fraternity brothers at the University of Florida did not mean that he would ever take any actions that could be perceived as favoring The Advocate Program, and then pretty much proceeded to do just that in his responses to the concerns raised in Lopez’s letter.

The judge’s answers are highlighted in RED.

The decision by the Procurement Department to turn to Judge Slom to respond to the allegations raised by Lopez was less an effort to get an unbiased professional opinion, and more a reflection of the insider political culture that often accompanies contract proposals where what’s really important is not to upset any of the political patrons of the those bidding on the contract.


In this case, it was evident that The Advocate Program was the favorite of the judges in both County and Circuit Court, and because the funding was not coming from tax dollars but rather from the fees paid by the defendants who were enrolled in the program, the complaints of a disgruntled competitor, no matter how meritorious, didn’t merit much attention and certainly nothing so drastic as asking the County’s Inspector General or the County’s Auditors to step in and review The Advocate Program’s performance.


What complicates matters for the judge’s claims of impartiality is that during the course of my investigation I came across an affidavit prepared in December of 2013, by Elena Reyes, then a senior manager in the State Attorney’s Office, which was submitted as part of a protest against another contract that had been awarded to The Advocate Program and Court Options that year.


As part of her affidavit she described a meeting with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle and other senior members of her staff in November of 2011, to report on serious problems in the way that both The Advocate Program and Court Options were maintaining records related to some of the issues raised in Lopez’s letter.


The meeting referenced in the affidavit took place approximately 6 months before Judge Slom responded to the questions in Lopez’s letter, and provides evidence that he had, well before he received the Lopez letter, been in possession of separate, independent information regarding The Advocate Program’s failure to adequately manage its case load.


Here is the specific portion of that affidavit that relates to the judge’s being made aware of these issues.  The complete affidavit plays an important role in Parts IV and V of this series.

McGriff’s concern over the threat posed by possible competitors was so strong that that year he spent $40,000 on lobbyist Ron Book.


Book has been registered in Tallahassee as The Advocate’s lobbyist since 2011, and between 2012 - 2014, he and his assistant Kelly Mallette were paid $115,590 for their services.

Putting aside any ethical questions as to whether undue influence was ever employed by one fraternity brother on behalf of another fraternity brother, regardless of how much or how little they socialized outside of the office, the Judge’s prior knowledge that there were serious management and record keeping problems with The Advocate Program separate from the allegations raised by Lopez, should on their own have caused him to think twice before responding to Lopez’s allegations.


Of course, no one at the time ever thought that Elana Reyes would ever reveal information in an affidavit, or that I would find it, and then be able to connect the dots between her affidavit, Lopez’s allegations and the judge’s decision to provide his fraternity with some cover by providing the vapid answers to Lopez’s allegations.


That’s what serendipity is all about.


On the other hand, what constitutes real political power that more often than not brushes all else aside, including serendipity, is when a non-profit like The Advocate Program is able to hire one of the state’s most powerful lobbyist’s to do their bidding in Tallahassee and County Hall; to have a Chief Circuit Judge issue an Administrative Court Order that allowed them to operate without a contract for 5 years, and then to have the Chief County Judge weigh in with a vapid set of responses in response to serious allegations of mismanagement.


It’s kind of hard not to conclude that when a company with that kind of muscle shows up to rebid on a contract that they’ve already controlled for 15 years, county employees in the Procurement Department - like savvy public employees anywhere - would be quick to recognize that as former US Speaker Sam Rayburn famously advised his fellow congressmen, “If you want to get along, you go along.”


RIP BOB LEVY


I end this story with a continuation of the story of Bob Levy and his decision in 2006 to walk around passing out a letter alleging that the bid process for the misdemeanor probation contract was rigged, and that a handful of judges, including Judge Slom, were in the bag for The Advocate Program.


When he was asked under oath why he did what he did, he answered, “...it seemed to me, both what I read here and what I was told that this was a pretty dirty deal.”


Five years later, after the dust settled, The Advocate Program had gotten their contract, and Judge Slom was running for reelection, guess who became his campaign manager?

WITH THE HELP OF LOBBYIST RON BOOK AND A HANDFUL OF JUDGES, INCLUDING CHIEF COUNTY COURT JUDGE SAM SLOM, THE ADVOCATE PROGRAM HAS MANAGED TO KEEP POTENTIAL CHALLENGERS TO THEIR CONTRACTS AT BAY

PART iI

A review of the available documents indicates that the alleged negotiated savings cited in the email represented reductions in projected increases in the fees that The Advocate Program would have been entitled to charge during the 3 year extension period, and not an across the board reduction in the fees that they had already been charging.


METRO TRAFFIC SHOW UP AGAIN, THIS TIME WITH REAL ALLEGATIONS OF MISMANAGEMENT


When it became evident in 2012 that the 3 contract extensions were going to be exercised, Anthony Lopez, the owner of The Metro Traffic Safety Institute wrote to object. His initial letter led to a meeting with Miriam Singer, the Assistant Director of the County’s Procurement Department, followed by a second letter where Lopez raised several detailed questions and concerns about the performance of The Advocate Program’s management of their contract.

Good afternoon Ms. Singer,

 

I hope all is well. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me yesterday. It’s unfortunate that the County can’t refuse exercising the extensions for RPF525, as a result of the self-referral conflict and/or FS322.292(5). That said, I think there are many other reasons why the citizens of Miami-Dade county would be better served if this contract was put out for bid again instead of being extended. At the meeting you asked me to send you any reason as to why the contract should not be extended based on contractual performance. Below I listed a few compliance issues that may be a factor;

 

·         On Page 25, letter D, the contract requires a maximum probation officer to client ratio of 1 to 110, for all projects.  I don’t believe there is anyway Advocate is complying with this requirement. Advocate commingles their case loads, meaning any one probation officer can be handling some misdemeanor probation cases, misdemeanor diversion cases, felony diversion cases, traffic diversion cases, domestic violence cases, etc. If an audit is done you will probably find that for “all project” that ratio is probably more likely to be between 300-400 to 1.


·         On page 25, letter G, the contract says “Priority shall be placed on probationer’s timely payment of restitution. This is not happening. I have heard many complaints on this subject throughout the years. I don’t ask you to take my word for it. Perhaps some type of study could be conducted.  The Help me Howard report to follow is simply one recent example to the problem. (The link to the Help Me Howard story has been disconnected.)


·         Page 27, letter R, also deals with the above subject

        If a client (Probationer) pays the entire balance up front, I have heard Advocate no longer monitors whether or not that client comes in on a monthly basis. This can be tested, if you send someone in posing as a legitimate probationer with a real case.


·         Perhaps you should inquire as to what monitoring or verification of community service hours they are doing.


·         It was mentioned that the contract might be extended for 3 years because of the great pricing being offered by Advocate. I’m not sure what that pricing is, but Professional Probation Services, who currently  has the probation contract for Sumter, Hernando, and was recently awarded the Palm Beach contract, only charges $40.00 in Sumter and Hernando counties. They would be willing to submit the same pricing for Miami-Dade county if this contract is put for out for Bid.


·         Although the above mentioned pricing to the probationer is of interest, more emphasis should be placed on how the vendor is doing collecting court cost, since this money is used to fund the system.  What is their percentage of uncollectable court costs? When a new probation entity was selected for Monroe county, they reduced uncollectable court costs by 35%. This could be another good reason to put the contract out for bid again. No one knows how much these collections can be improved by, because Advocate has been the sole provider of these services for Miami-Dade county for about 25 years.


I do not expect anyone to blindly take the above mentioned reasons at face value. Instead, I implore someone to please conduct a thorough research, perhaps with the assistance of some verifiable audit measures.  If someone asks Metro Traffic School’s standing within the DHSMV, and someone there says Metro is great or horrible, there exist verifiable reports from unannounced audits conducted by the DHSMV to support whether we are thought of, as great, horrible or somewhere in between. I humbly ask you, to please, do not put too much emphasis on recommendations from friends within the system Advocate has been a part of for about 25 years. This is a $7,000,000 contact,  plus the self-referral bonus, yet there are no independent audits conducted to prove commendations or disapprove my claims.

 

Again thank you for your time. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

 

Sincerely,

 

Anthony Lopez

(C) COPYRIGHTED 2016

As I often say, you just can’t make this stuff up.


THIS IS THE END OF PART II