TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Four Miami-Dade County circuit judges and a now-retired judge face likely discipline from the Florida Supreme Court after sending a letter last year that supported an organization seeking a major state child-welfare contract.
An investigative panel is recommending that retired Judge Cindy Lederman and judges Marcia Caballero, Rosa Figarola, Teresa Pooler and Mavel Ruiz receive a written reprimand from the Supreme Court because of a letter that backed Our Kids of Miami-Dade & Monroe, Inc. as it competed with another organization for a Department of Children and Families multi-year contract worth about $500 million, according to documents filed Thursday with the Supreme Court.
The findings of an investigative panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission said the judges "were not motivated by any corrupt intent or design" but that they inappropriately weighed in on behalf of Our Kids as it sought a contract to serve as a lead agency for community-based care in South Florida.
"Judges have valuable knowledge and insight into the court system, and they should be allowed and encouraged to share that knowledge," the panel's findings said. "However, such conversations and communications must adhere to the (judicial) canons. In this case, the respondents' (judges') letter crossed the line from informational, to advocacy in favor of one competitive bidder over another."
Another document filed Thursday at the Supreme Court, known as a stipulation, said the judges do not dispute the findings or the recommended reprimand. The Supreme Court has ultimate authority to discipline judges.
"The respondents agree that the alleged violations of the canons are demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence, and do not contest the findings and recommendations, or the discipline recommended therein," the stipulation said.
The letter came as Our Kids, which had the lead-agency contract in the past, competed with Citrus Health Network, Inc. for a new contract to provide the services. Lederman, who retired as a judge in December, wrote the letter backing Our Kids in September 2018, with the other judges signing on.
The letter, sent to a Department of Children and Families official in Miami, praised the non-profit Our Kids and its board.
"The Our Kids Board is answerable to the community," the letter said. "They are our community's experts in child welù1re policy and practice. This model must survive the ITN (invitation to negotiate procurement) process. We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in your mind."
The non-profit Citrus Health Network, operating as the Citrus Family Care Network, ultimately won the contract from the state this year. Lead agencies play a key role in providing services such as managing foster care and preventing child abuse. The state awards contracts to agencies in different regions of the state, with Citrus Family Care Network chosen to serve Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.