TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Eckerd Connects expects a $4 million deficit in foster care funds for Hillsborough County this year, but today they hired one of Tallahassee’s most prominent lawyers to respond to our 8 On Your Side “Rides to Nowhere” investigation.

On Wednesday, we questioned the closing of Eckerd’s parent board of directors meeting to our cameras and the public in light of the growing foster care crisis in Hillsborough County.  On Thursday, attorney Barry Richard, who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential race hanging chad dispute that decided the election, sent a letter to our lawyers insisting Eckerd’s parent board has nothing to do with managing foster care or other taxpayer-funded business and is therefore exempt from Florida’s Sunshine Law.

Richard says “division boards” that directly manage foster care in Pinellas and Hillsborough are open to the public and subject to Florida’s open meetings law.

“Matters relating to the Florida contract are not discussed at the parent company board meetings,” Richard wrote.

Richard insists that “a separate division of Eckerd” run by a “division board” is in charge of Hillsborough foster care. That troubled foster care system is now the subject of a DCF review, an Inspector General investigation, and an abuse investigation by the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office.

In January, our “Rides to Nowhere” investigation documented foster kids spending their days held in caseworkers’ cars at a Wawa gas station on Waters Ave instead of attending school, therapy or going to a foster home.

Eckerd first received word of that practice through an anonymous tip in November, but it was still going on when we staked out the Wawa in January.

Richard insists Eckerd is under no obligation to open its “parent board” meeting to the public saying no public business-foster care or otherwise-is discussed at those meetings. The private nonprofit organization received a total of  $184,566,920-equivalent to 96% of its total funding-from government sources according to the most recent IRS report in 2016.

On Tuesday, the DCF urged Eckerd to open its “parent board” meeting and on Wednesday, so did Governor Rick Scott.  On Thursday, Hillsborough Commissioner and foster care advocate Sandy Murman told Eight on Your Side Eckerd should open all of its meetings for the sake of transparency and public perception in light of the foster care failures in Hillsborough.

“I think transparency and accountability is number one priority,” Murman said. “You should open your doors and let people help you in your decision making and not close people out. I think it breeds suspicion.”

In his letter, Richard praises 8 On Your Side for some of our reporting. “To its credit, WFLA-TV initially brought to light deficiencies in the manner in which Eckerd’s subcontractor, Youth and Family Alternatives, was performing its responsibilities. Upon learning of the deficiencies, Eckerd promptly fired the subcontractor and took steps to correct the deficiencies,” Richard wrote. He ends his letter with a warning. “I urge you to counsel your client to prudently monitor Mr. Douglas’ reports…”

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