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May 5, 2014

Court-martialed Army officer focus of Florida hiring controversy

LIVE OAK, Fla. — When William "Bill" Steele was appointed operations director of the Suwannee ValleyTransit Authority in December of 2011, he said he told his good friend and boss about his tarnished military record in Iraq.

Gwendolyn Pra, the agency's administrator, hired the former Army lieutenant colonel anyway and did not share his past with her oversight board.

But an audit of the North Florida transit authority's financial records turned up the details of Steele's 2007 conviction by a militiary court for wrongful possession of classified materials, disobeying an order and having an inappropriate relationship with a female interpreter.

He was sentenced to two years at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with time deducted for confinement during prosecution, and dismissed from the Army.

Steele was cleared of more serious charges of aiding the enemy during 2005 and 2006 when he served as the warden of the holding facility for security detainees at Camp Cropper in Baghdad.

Camp Cropper once held ousted Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein and several members of his Baath Party. Steele had been accused of allowing three juvenile prisoners to use his cellphone to make unauthorized, unmonitored calls to their parents.

"We confirmed that William H. Steele,  who was employed by the SVTA,  was the former U.S. Army officer by contacting the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth and comparing Social Security numbers, date of birth and a photograh of the inmate that had been in custody," said Robert E. Clift, inspector general for the Florida Department of Transportation.

Steele, 58, said he did not hide his military past from Pra, who he said he had known for 20 years, when they discusssed the job of operations director of the transit agency.

"She was fully informed as to my background," he said. "We spent many weeks discussing this to be sure we were no putting the agency at risk."

Pra, 64, resigned as the head of the transit authority on Apri 21 after the agency's board chairman, Ron Williams, objected to her hiring Steele without disclosing his soiled military record to board members.

Williams said Steele's background "cast a bad light on SVTA and should have been shared with the board."

Subsequently, the board eliminated Steele's position at the agency. He told the Suwannee Democrat in a telephone interview that a letter sent to the board offering to resign was written by "someone without my authorization."

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Details for this story were provided by the Suwannee Democrat of Live Oak, Fla.

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