PINELLAS CO., Fla. (WFLA) – A strident announcement from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office about a criminal investigation of the Tampa Bay area’s lead child welfare agency came less than a year ago, but now the probe has quietly gone inactive.
8 on Your Side had exposed the issue of foster children sleeping in Eckerd Connects offices and waiting long hours in cars for placements for several years, at one point prompting the non-profit to change sub-contractors.
Last November, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a news conference about his intent to seek criminal charges against Eckerd and its high-level management, calling the living conditions in the agency’s Largo offices “disgusting and deplorable.”
“The conditions are as bad or worse than the living conditions from which the children were removed,” Gualtieri said. “I believe the situation created by Eckerd constitutes child abuse and neglect.”
10 months later, with no announcement or on-camera availability, the investigation is inactive, according to Public Information Officer Sgt. Amanda Sinni.
“It’s inactive because right now we do not have any further leads to follow,” Sinni wrote in an email. “So far we have not established probable cause to establish all the elements of a criminal offense. We will not be providing anyone for an interview.”
Stetson law professor Steven Stephens was a Hillsborough County judge for 20 years, including time on the Business Court bench. He said criminally charging a business in state court is “very rare.”
“You see it in federal court,” Stephens said. “I don’t know that I saw it [in state court] in all of my years.”
Stephens did not comment specifically about the Eckerd investigation but said there are several reasons why a criminal case would go inactive, including a lack of dependable witnesses and changes in the law.
He said developing evidence against executives is often more difficult than uncovering evidence that incriminates their business.
“You’re going to see the corporate prosecution more often when they don’t have really good evidence against any of the individuals,” Stephens said. “But they have clear evidence a crime has been committed and they feel it’s imperative to do something to address the crime.”
And while an executive could be punished with jail time, a criminal conviction against a company would involve fines, Stephens said.
An Eckerd spokesman said the non-profit did not want to comment on the new development in the investigation.
In a November statement, Eckerd said the company would cooperate with the investigation even though agency leaders “do not believe Eckerd Connects has violated any laws.”
Eckerd and the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) decided not to renew their contract in Pasco and Pinellas counties before it expired at the end of last year. Eckerd had been the state contractor in that area since 2008.
Eckerd and DCF also parted ways in Hillsborough County in June.