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Ombudsman Investigation Could Spur Elder Affairs Reforms

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TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — An investigation into a former state watchdog for seniors has ended in a series of recommendations to improve the long-term-care ombudsman program at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

The review by the Office of Inspector General began as an examination of charges that Jim Crochet, the state ombudsman from May 2011 to August 2013, made "inappropriate comments" about Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Chuck Corley and Deputy Secretary Richard Prudom.

Crochet was placed on administrative leave July 26 and retired Aug. 2. Also, a former deputy ombudsman, Don Hering, resigned in August.

The report cited remarks that Crochet was alleged to have made about higher-ups at the agency. But it also recommended changes at the agency that Crochet and Hering said they had sought, such as getting headquarters staff members certified, speeding up the response to legal questions, creating a procedures manual and bringing the program's website up to date.

"She did not uncover any mystery," said Hering of the findings by the department's inspector general, Taroub King.

The report said other employees at the department heard Crochet make derogatory comments.

"He expressed to two employees that Corley was an 'empty suit…lazy…up there in name only' and to seven employees that Prudom was 'out to get him…and the program,' '' the report said. "Additionally, nine employees reportedly heard him make comments about (human resources) 'interfering with the program' and four employees reportedly heard him say that the DOEA 'was sticking their nose where they did not need to be … (the) program needed to be in a separate building to run properly.'"

King wrote that Crochet had acknowledged making remarks to the effect that " 'DOEA and HR were too deeply involved in the program' and that he felt 'Prudom was out to get him.' "

On Thursday, Crochet denied making any inappropriate comments. He said he had returned in late June from 14 weeks of medical leave to find that issues such as the certifications, procedures manual and website had not been worked on in his absence.

As to the report’s recommendations, both Crochet and Hering agreed with them.

“I was certified, and that is why I was disturbed by the lack of attention to it with our internal staff,” Hering said.

Crochet was tapped in May 2011 to replace former ombudsman Brian Lee, who was dismissed from the post shortly after Gov. Rick Scott took office. Lee, who served for seven years and was considered thorn in the side of providers, has filed a lawsuit against the department and two provider associations, with the case expected to go to trial next year.

Crochet, formerly a department rule-writer, was considered more industry-friendly than Lee. Among the remarks attributed to Crochet in the report were references to “Brian Lee worshippers” in the ombudsman program.

Because Crochet retired and Hering resigned during the investigation, King did not recommend further action against them. The investigation into Crochet’s remarks, which included 23 interviews with department staff, began July 3 and ended Oct. 17.

Department spokeswoman Ashley Marshall said the agency had no timetable for putting the report’s recommendations in place.

“There isn't a time frame as these are recommendations simply put forth by the OIG based on findings from the investigation process,” Marshall wrote in an email. “This is not like a corrective action plan, where specific requirements or changes exist. Interim Ombudsman Jim Croteau has informed me that he is currently writing up his response to the management review recommendations.”

As to the investigation’s cost, Marshall said it was simply a part of the work for which the inspector general is paid.

“No additional costs were incurred outside of the costs budgeted for her division for this very type of work,” Marshall wrote. “There was some travel, but nothing outside of the costs/budget provided in the (Office of Inspector General) budget specifically for travel for investigations.”