Fla. gun per­mit woes worsen

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY STEVE CONTORNO Na­tional Po­lit­i­cal Cor­re­spon­dent

The over­sight of the con­cealed weapons pro­gram was more lax than re­ported.

Flor­ida wrongly is­sued con­cealed weapons li­censes to more peo­ple than pre­vi­ously dis­closed and al­lowed con­tract work­ers with a track record of er­rors to process thou­sands of gun ap­pli­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to a new au­dit of the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

The re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day by the state’s au­di­tor gen­eral raises new ques­tions about whether the agency leader, Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Adam Put­nam, was en­tirely forth­com­ing this sum­mer when con­cerns arose about his de­part­ment’s han­dling of con­cealed weapons per­mits. The lat­est rev­e­la­tions come as some Democrats in Tal­la­has­see are push­ing for state law en­force­ment to take over the em­bat­tled weapons pro­gram.

The Tampa Bay Times re­ported ear­lier this year that from Fe­bru­ary 2016 to March 2017 the state stopped us­ing the re­sults from an FBI crime data­base called the Na­tional In­stant Crim­i­nal Back­ground Check Sys­tem that en­sures ap­pli­cants who want to carry a gun don’t have a dis­qual­i­fy­ing his­tory in other states.

Put­nam, then a lead­ing Re­pub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor, blamed one em­ployee for a lapse that led to hun­dreds of in­el­i­gi­ble peo­ple gain­ing a per­mit to carry a gun in pub­lic. He said his de­part­ment re­sponded by act­ing swiftly last year to dis­miss the em­ployee and pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again.

“Lead­ers hold peo­ple ac­count­able,” Put­nam said at a June news con­fer­ence in re­sponse to

the Times re­port. “We are here to ex­plain to the pub­lic ex­actly what hap­pened.”

But this week’s au­dit said the “ab­sence of ad­e­quate con­trols” con­trib­uted to the breach. In short, the lapse should have been dis­cov­ered ear­lier, in­stead of fes­ter­ing for a year.

Mean­while, prob­lems per­sisted through 2017. And in some in­stances, Put­nam gave in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic about the scope of the prob­lem, the re­port said.

The au­dit find­ings in­clude: • The De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture never dis­closed to au­di­tors that the agency in 2017 was in­ves­ti­gat­ing a year-long lapse in back­ground checks, even though state au­di­tor gen­eral’s staff had launched its own re­view of the de­part­ment. The au­di­tor gen­eral only learned about the back­ground-check prob­lem when it was re­ported by the Times in June, a year later.

• Put­nam gave er­ro­neous in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic when he said 291 con­cealed weapons per­mits were retroac­tively re­voked as a re­sult of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It was ac­tu­ally 310. Au­di­tors also found state law en­force­ment warned it didn’t have enough in­for­ma­tion to con­duct a na­tional back­ground check for 88 peo­ple, but the de­part­ment ap­proved the ap­pli­ca­tions any­way.

• The agency ap­proved ad­di­tional er­ro­neous li­censes from March 2017 through Jan­uary 2018 — af­ter the back­ground­check prob­lem was first dis­cov­ered. A spot check of 108 ap­pli­ca­tions found the state wrongly is­sued four con­cealed weapons per­mits for for­eign con­sular, in­clud­ing two to peo­ple who never re­quested the li­cense. • Con­tracted em­ploy­ees con­tin­ued to work for the de­part­ment for weeks even af­ter they were flagged for mul­ti­ple er­rors, such as fail­ing to re­view crim­i­nal his­to­ries of ap­pli­cants, and they pro­cessed more than 10,000 ap­pli­ca­tions be­fore they were let go. Three con­tract em­ploy­ees were hired full-time even af­ter mak­ing er­rors.

In all, the 49-page re­port listed 14 “find­ings.” Over­sight of the con­cealed weapons per­mits and other pro­grams was “not al­ways ad­e­quate or ef­fec­tively im­ple­mented,” data pro­vided to the pub­lic was “not al­ways com­plete or ac­cu­rate,” and in­ves­ti­ga­tions into non-com­pli­ance of li­censes took too long, Au­di­tor Gen­eral Sher­ill Nor­man wrote.

“The es­tab­lish­ment of ad­e­quate and ap­pro­pri­ate con­cealed weapon li­cense ap­pli­ca­tion con­trols is es­sen­tial to help en­sure that such li­censes are not is­sued to un­qual­i­fied in­di­vid­u­als,” Nor­man wrote.

The au­dit also found the de­part­ment some­times waited weeks to re­view back­ground checks of its own em­ploy­ees. One se­nior clerk worked for the de­part­ment for 175 days be­fore her su­per­vi­sors dis­cov­ered a felony ex­tor­tion charge on her record. She was even­tu­ally dis­missed.

De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture spokesman Aaron Keller de­clined to com­ment on spe­cific ques­tions raised by the au­dit. He re­ferred a Times re­porter to the agency’s re­sponse in­cluded in the re­port.

The de­part­ment’s re­sponse dis­closed for the first time that the de­part­ment once al­lowed a 5 per­cent er­ror rate for em­ploy­ees who process con­cealed carry back­ground pemits. Now, em­ploy­ees must meet a “100 per­cent achieve­ment rate,” the de­part­ment said.

The agency also ac­knowl­edged it was an “over­sight” not to in­form the au­di­tor gen­eral about its in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the missed back­ground checks.

Agency of­fi­cials at­trib­uted some of the high­lighted prob­lems to “record de­mand,” “staff work­load is­sues,” and “staffing is­sues.” In a let­ter to the au­di­tor, Put­nam said he has since cut back em­ployee work­loads by 25 per­cent to “en­sure ad­e­quate time to pro­duce er­ror­free work.” The Times pre­vi­ously re­ported the de­part­ment at one time man­dated em­ploy­ees to process 75 ap­pli­ca­tions a day.

Put­nam this sum­mer brushed off con­cerned em­ploy­ees who said they were over­worked by a record surge of ap­pli­ca­tions for per­mits. One em­ployee told in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors the de­part­ment was “bombed” by re­quests, es­pe­cially af­ter a high-pro­file shoot­ing.

At Put­nam’s urg­ing, Flor­ida saw an un­prece­dented ex­pan­sion of its con­cealed weapons pro­gram dur­ing his eight years in of­fice. There are now al­most 2 mil­lion peo­ple li­censed to carry a gun in pub­lic, more than any other state.

To meet the de­mand, the de­part­ment brought in con­tract em­ploy­ees, the au­dit found. More than one in four of the the 733,893 ap­pli­ca­tions for a con­cealed weapon li­cense pro­cessed from July 1, 2015, through June 21, 2018, were re­viewed by these con­trac­tors, not de­part­ment staff.

Put­nam, a self-de­clared “proud NRA sell­out,” ex­pected to run for gov­er­nor on his gun record. In­stead, ques­tions about his man­age­ment and over­sight of the of­fice dogged his cam­paign.

The Times re­ported in July that Put­nam’s agency agreed to pay a $30,000 set­tle­ment in 2016 to an ex-su­per­vi­sor who said she was fired for no­ti­fy­ing su­per­vi­sors about prob­lems with the con­cealed weapons pro­gram. The su­per­vi­sor was told she “worked for the NRA,” she said in a court com­plaint.

The As­so­ci­ated Press also re­ported that state in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that 48 em­ploy­ees un­der Put­nam made mis­takes while re­view­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for li­censes. Some of them didn’t read ar­rest re­ports or the full ap­pli­ca­tions when is­su­ing per­mits, in­clud­ing ones for con­cealed weapons.

Put­nam even­tu­ally lost the pri­mary to Ron DeSan­tis, now the gov­er­nor-elect.

Demo­crat Nikki Fried, elected in Novem­ber to re­place Put­nam as agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner, has promised a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the con­cealed weapons pro­gram and has called for Flor­ida De­part­ment of Law En­force­ment to is­sue li­censes in­stead.

But Mar­ion Ham­mer, the pow­er­ful lob­by­ist for the state NRA, has in­sisted that an elected of­fi­cial must over­see the pro­gram. She wants the state’s chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer, Re­pub­li­can Jimmy Pa­tro­nis, to take over the li­censes.

Put­nam

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