Florida Department of Corrections: Maximum Security Information Control

Florida Department of Corrections: Maximum Security Information Control

Friday, the Florida Department of Corrections issued a new policy regarding disclosure of information from the agency to outside parties by the employees in the Inspector General’s Office. As described by Mary Ellen Klas and Julie K. Brown of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, the new policy involves “a confidentiality agreement” together with commitments “not to use the department database for unauthorized use,” to “not release information on open or closed cases to anyone,” and not to “compromise their independence while they are working in the department.”

The job of those who work in the inspector general’s office in any agency is to investigate the activities of that agency. They are the internal watchdogs, operating in the precarious no man’s land between loyal agency employee and independent inquisitor. They examine financial transactions, employee interactions, policy implementation . . . a broad range of activities designed to help ensure each agency performs its task efficiently, effectively and in a manner consistent with the directives of the law.

These inspectors sometimes are viewed as the enemy by those inside the organization, and their reports, when they are unflattering about the agency’s conduct, as betrayals.

But in a very real sense, these inspectors, when they do their job well, actually serve the agency better than any other employee can. Because they are serving the agency, upholding its mission, even against those in the agency who would rather pursue their own personal interests or their personal (and inconsistent) vision of the mission of the agency.

But when one is the target of that unflattering report, directly or indirectly, it can be hard to see things in that light.

It is fair to say that those who work in the Inspector General’s Office must preserve confidentiality. Otherwise, they will have a great deal of difficulty securing cooperation from those in the agency and outside it who have information relevant to possible problems. So, too, the confidentiality of clients is important to preserve, as it would be for any employee of the agency.

So . . . okay, a confidentiality agreement signed by all inspectors clearly seems appropriate. Indeed, I’m surprised that no such signature was a requirement of employment before (if it wasn’t).

Similarly, the agreement not to “compromise their independence” is precisely what should be required. The Inspector General’s Office must be free to investigate where the trail leads, independent of the preferences of employees, administrators and even political leaders (one of the reasons for Secretary of DOC Mike Crews’ allegations about interactions between the Governor’s Office and DOC during a particularly scandalous incident involving the death of an inmate are so troubling). The Inspector General’s Office ought not to take its orders from a legislator, for instance, though certainly a legislative committee can identify areas of its own concern to which the Inspector General’s Office ought to give due consideration. At some level, I suspect, the appropriate legislative committee can direct the office to report back on some concern . . . I presume that would be a formal action by the committee, not just a member. But being ordered not to investigate something sounds like a violation of independence.

As would, perhaps, being ordered not to reveal something to the legislative committee that provides oversight.

Like the outcome of completed investigations, perhaps? Closed cases?

That, apparently, is forbidden now, too.

I’ll acknowledge that I am not an expert in the proper form of the nondisclosure requirements for those who work in inspector generals’ offices, nor those of other law enforcement agencies. But I’m pretty certain that closed investigations can be and frequently are reported, especially to agencies with oversight.

Perhaps just as important as what is and is not proper in such agreements is how all of this has played out in the press. In the same week that the Department of Corrections comes under heavy criticism by a legislative committee responsible for providing oversight of the agency, the agency issues a new set of directives that, even if proper, sound like circling the wagons or slamming the fortress door.

So much for transparency . . . and building public confidence in a beleaguered agency