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Why won’t Jeb Bush fire this man?
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Jerry Regier has obviously got Polaroids of Gov. Jeb Bush in drag, or an equally kinky secret.

Nothing else could explain why Bush hasn’t fired this knucklehead from the Department of Children and Families (DCF), where Regier has served two damaging years as secretary.

Arguably the most important appointment of the governor’s tenure – choosing the person to lead Florida’s scandalized child-welfare agency – has proved to be one of the worst decisions Bush has ever made.

A scalding report by the governor’s chief inspector general has revealed that high-ranking DCF officials handed out fat and dubious contracts to pals and political cronies, and accepted gifts, favors and lodging from outside contractors.

As a result, three of Regier’s top administrators have quit, and Regier himself has been reduced to defending his own outrageous socializing with a DCF contractor.

It’s much more than the mere “appearance of impropriety.” It is the greedy, rotten essence of impropriety – profiteering at the expense of Florida’s neediest and most vulnerable children.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have been spent hiring more caseworkers and investigators were instead doled out to well-connected firms as part of Regier’s rush to “privatize” child-welfare services.

In recent weeks, the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller has documented the DCF gravy train in infuriating detail. A few of the lowlights:

• A $21 million contract to fix DCF’s computer system was awarded to American Management Services, although another company had been ranked first after the initial screening process.

The lobbyist for American Management happened to be Greg Coler, a former chief of the state child-welfare agency and a close friend of Regier. Sitting on American Management’s board of

directors was former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating – the man who recommended Regier for the DCF job in Florida.

• DCF Deputy Secretary Ben Harris gave out a $500,000 no-bid contract, split between two of his friends, for computer “kiosks” that dispense food stamps.

Harris brushed off warnings that the kiosks were a dumb idea because food-stamp recipients couldn’t master the technology and wouldn’t use them, and because the equipment was often unreliable.

After being singled out by the inspector general, Harris and another Regier lackey resigned from DCF.

• Regier attended a birthday party thrown for him by a buddy named Jim Bax, who was director of Florida State University’s Institute for Health and Human Services. During another visit, Regier and his wife spent the night at Bax’s luxury home on Longboat Key.

At the time, Bax’s firm had been awarded more than $4 million in contract work from DCF.

Regier also accepted tickets for concerts and sports events from lobbyists for private vendors dealing with DCF. He says he repaid them out of his pocket.

Naturally, the secretary insists he did nothing wrong and admits only to a lapse in judgment. Whether he made that statement in blind stupidity or common arrogance doesn’t really matter – the man is patently unfit to be running any state agency, much less the one in charge of protecting Florida’s kids. Who, by the way, are still being abused, abandoned and killed in appalling numbers.

When aides warned Regier of ethical problems with the way DCF was dishing out contracts, he ignored them. His chief of staff, Samara Kramer, persisted – and was canned for disloyalty.

Regier quickly hired her back, then denied ever firing her – a blatant lie that is hardly out of character.

How could Bush not have seen this mess coming? Regier was a GOP party hack in Oklahoma with an undistinguished track record in the family services bureaucracy. An ultraconservative Christian, his byline had turned up on two published papers that espoused spanking kids, even if it caused “welts and bruises.”

Typically, Regier tried to weasel out of his own words by claiming he didn’t agree with those controversial sections of the articles, even though he’d plastered his name on them.

Bush was miffed, but he still didn’t ax the guy. And here we are a year later, swamped with scandal at an agency that can ill-afford more demoralizing, an agency that Bush has repeatedly promised to clean up and fix.

Carl Hiaasen can be reached by e-mail at HeraldEd@aol.com.
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