On the day before his arbitration hearing last week, Charles Hoeffer’s police union lawyer proposed a settlement that would also allow the former officer to retire in good standing.
“We will accept a lump sum of payment of $575,000.00,” Police Benevolent Association lawyer Larry Fagan wrote in an email to the lawyer representing Palm Beach Shores. “We’ll pay the taxes.”
The town rejected the offer.
Hoeffer spent nearly two years on paid leave while the Riviera Beach police, prosecutors and the FBI investigated claims that he twice raped a blind woman while on duty in 2014. Prosecutors and the FBI decided not to charge him with a crime.
For years, Youth Services International has fended off allegations of substandard care of the juvenile offenders it houses for Florida, and for years, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to award the Sarasota company lucrative contracts and defend its practices.
YSI is out as of August 31.
DJJ Secretary Christina Daly said in a written statement issued late Wednesday afternoon that the decision was set in motion by a former YSI employee who sued the company, alleging it faked documents key to its lucrative state contracts and failed to provide services to juveniles in its care.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office became involved, said Daly, and the resulting mediated settlement requires YSI to relinquish its contracts to run seven DJJ facilities — and reimburse the state for unspecified financial losses.
“While YSI believes there is no merit to this lawsuit, it made the decision to settle the case in an effort to put the four year litigation in the past and avoid the future cost and distraction of a continued legal defense,” said a company spokesman in a statement.
“To know that they are not going to be in the state anymore is absolutely marvelous,” said Palm Beach County commissioner Shelley Vana. Vana’s high-profile criticism of how YSI ran the troubled Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility focused Tallahassee’s attention on the firm.
And this from Broward County public defender Gordon Weekes, who represents youthful offenders and has a laundry list of issues with the firm: “It’s about time.”
Last August, YSI opted out of its multimillion-dollar state contract to
run the Palm Beach center for teenage boys after a surprise inspection by Vana found several teenagers with shoes that were falling apart. Some toilets weren’t working. Teens said they were hungry.
Further, in the previous eight months before her visit, two staffers were charged with child neglect after arranging a brutal fight between teenagers. One of the teens sustained a “possible fractured eye socket and a fractured nose,” according to investigators.
DJJ requested an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Even so, the agency largely defended its long-time contractor.
Yet the company has found itself under fire since 1997, when DJJ awarded Correctional Services Corp. — which later became YSI — its very first contract, to run the 350-bed Pahokee Youth Development Center in rural Palm Beach County.
Just months later, Dade County Circuit Judge Thomas Petersen reported “physical and psychological conditions (that) bordered upon child abuse” at the facility.
The company flatly denied Petersen’s findings. Months before the $30 million contract was set to expire, however, and one week before a slated Palm Beach County court hearing on conditions at the center, the company dropped the Pahokee contract.
It was, said state officials, a mutual decision. But not long after that, YSI picked up more state contracts to house and treat juveniles for the state, including the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility deal, and has been racking up contracts ever since.
In June 2013, just as the Dept. of Justice published its findings that the rate of youth-reported sex abuse at the Palm Beach facility was triple 2012’s statewide average, Florida signed off on contracts with YSI valued at $17.7 million. In October of that year, when Pembroke Pines police were investigating two YSI staff members accused of assaulting teens in their care, Florida and YSI inked an $11.7 million contract. And the company got a $29 million contract even as it was fending off a suit alleging civil rights violations at Thompson Academy in Broward County.
YSI will be out of the business of caring for Florida juvenile offenders as of August 31, said Daly, when new operators are expected to be phased in. Just who that will be isn’t yet known.
In news that’s sure to get under the skin of local police chiefs, a former cop’s weekly radio program has been resurrected.
Former Riviera Beach police Lt. Rick Sessa’s “The Beat: Real Cop Talk Radio” will begin airing today after a nearly 2-year hiatus, and Sessa says it will keep the same free-wheeling style that drew the attention of police across the county.
The program is airing between 4 and 5 p.m. on Fridays on 900 AM, The Talk of the Palm Beaches.
Under its previous run, “The Beat” featured citizens and officers speaking on and off the record about their personal stories, trends in policing and gossip within local police departments. Sessa was quick to praise police but quick to criticize, too.
“I’m pro-police, pro-those who serve,” Sessa said this week. “(But) one thing I can’t stand is either cops who have no business in the industry because of their values, or lack thereof.”
Sessa’s program was first to highlight the long and troubled career of Palm Beach Shores officer Charles Hoeffer, three years before Hoeffer was accused of raping a blind woman in her home. Hoeffer has been on paid leave for more than a year and could be criminally charged.
Sessa said he plans to talk about the Hoeffer case on today’s program.
The show is returning at the perfect time, when scrutiny over police actions are in the spotlight, he said.
It stopped airing about a year and a half ago after he claims the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office pressured local companies to stop sponsoring the program.
Sessa said he’s been told by JVC Broadcasting, the new station that’s broadcasting the show, not to worry about sponsors.
“I have not been told that I have to hold back on anything,” Sessa said.
Christina Daly didn’t have to pen letters to each of the Palm Beach County Commissioners about conditions at the local juvenile detention center, but the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice chief’s two page missive might allay concerns.
“I can assure you this department does not tolerate conduct or an environment that puts youth at risk,” DJJ Secretary Christina Daly wrote commissioners on Monday.
And Daly ticked off a laundry list of efforts: an unannounced visit by both the Inspector General and the head of the agency’s Bureau of Inspections, a fresh round of surveys of teenage boys housed there, a facilities inspection, an assessment of how staffers are trained in the use of force and, of course, the request that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement look into the facility.
Youth Services International, the Sarasota-based company operating the center under contract to DJJ, isn’t mentioned in the letter.
But it’s very much in the forefront of criticism. Legal advocates, including lawyers for teenagers housed in YSI facilities, have slammed YSI for several years. Only last year, a Florida Senate subcommittee took testimony into conditions at a Broward center run by the company.
YSI denied allegations of maltreatment and DJJ’s inspector general also found nothing to report.
None of that seems to have factored into Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana’s desire to see the county break its $1-a-year lease with DJJ for the center property and send the agency, and its contractor, packing.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) reports that Columbia Correctional prison Sgt. Christopher Michael Jernigan and guard Donald Dwight Sims, Jr. have been charged with aggravated battery on an inmate and, in Jernigan’s case, tampering with evidence.
According to the FDLE, this is how it played out:
The Columbia Correctional Institution guards were taking Shurick Lewis, 41, to solitary confinement this past February when they ordered other inmates to leave the area. Lewis was then taken to a place without video surveillance and assaulted.
According to FDLE, after the beating, Jernigan told other inmates to clean up the blood, put a new mattress on the bunk and throw away bloody clothes.
Lewis, bleeding from his nose and mouth and with a swollen eye, was seen by a prison nurse. It’s not known what care he got, but the nurse sent him back to his cell – where he lost consciousness.
Several hours later, he was found by officers on the next shift and taken to Shands Hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and several facial fractures.
The two guards offered vastly different stories: Sims said Lewis fell off his bunk. Jernigan said he used force after the inmate lunged at him.
Jernigan turned himself in to the Columbia County Jail yesterday. Sims was arrested Monday night.
All this comes within weeks of the arrest of two prison guards and one ex-guard — all reputed members of the Ku Klux Klan — for conspiring to kill a former inmate.
That doesn’t exactly qualify as the start of a clean sweep, but it does give some credence to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones’s written comments about Jernigan and Sims: “The Florida Department of Corrections has absolutely no tolerance for the behavior and actions taken by these individuals.”