- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has hired the former chief of prisons in Florida and Indiana to oversee Michigan’s troubled three-year, $145 million contract with a company supplying inmates with food.

Edwin Buss began work Sept. 2 and will be paid $160,000 a year. His salary is being covered with a $200,000 fine that the state levied last month against Aramark Correctional Services for unapproved menu substitutions, inadequate staffing and employee misconduct, Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel told The Associated Press.

It was the second fine against the Philadelphia-based company since it took over food service in state prisons last year, though the Corrections Department confirmed Thursday that it canceled the first one. Ohio also has fined Aramark for similar contract violations.

The governor announced in August that an independent monitor not employed by the Department of Corrections or Aramark would work inside his executive office to serve as a liaison among the company, the prison agency and other state officials. But Buss instead is working at the Department of Technology, Management & Budget, which handles state contracts and procurement.

Prison unions who oppose the privatization of food service had raised suspicions that Snyder was trying to shield emails and documents related to the food contract from public disclosure, since his office is not subject to public records requests. Administration officials denied that but nevertheless changed course, saying it made sense to place Buss in an agency familiar with state contracts.

Aramark said last month it was encouraged that “vital” changes would be made so that independent monitors oversee the contract.

Buss, 48, most recently worked in Florida as chief development officer for Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc. The Tennessee-based company provides medical and mental health care to prison and jail inmates.

In 2011, after just six months on the job, Buss was forced out as Florida’s prison chief after a series of clashes with Gov. Rick Scott. Initial health care privatization bids would have benefited a consultant whom Buss had hired. Buss also gave MSNBC access to Florida prisons for its “Lockup” program without consulting the governor’s office.

Scott’s transition team had actively recruited Buss, who was Indiana’s prison head at the time and was also being sought by Michigan.

In his first week on the job in Michigan, Buss has been evaluating the contract and visiting prisons to meet with wardens, food service employees and union stewards to learn operations at individual facilities, Wurfel said.

Michigan’s contract with Aramark runs through Sept. 30, 2016. Democrats and a liberal advocacy group had called on Snyder, a Republican, to cancel the deal, saying problems were inevitable because of high turnover and lower pay for private workers who replaced roughly 370 state employees who lost their jobs in the outsourcing.

The governor has defended the decision to stick with the food vendor, saying last month the state was on pace to save $14 million a year through privatization. He also absolved Aramark of responsibility for suspected food poisoning and maggot problems.

The liberal group Progress Michigan on Thursday released a few March emails between Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns and Snyder chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, obtained through a public records request.

Muchmore referred to news reports about lawmakers being concerned about Aramark and asked, “Do you feel you’ve got this under control?”

“Answer is no but I am working on it,” Heyns replied on March 13.

Heyns said in another email that he would “tone down my attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines and give Aramark time to solve the problems.”

“We were concerned about losing control of a joint,” he said, referring to a prison.

It was unclear why the email from Muchmore to Heyns just before that email was entirely redacted.

Heyns spokesman Russ Marlan said his boss believed that too much negative attention would reduce safety. The initial $98,000 fine was canceled to give Aramark time to address issues, he said.

Progress Michigan questioned what Muchmore said in the blacked-out email and again called on Snyder to end the contract immediately.

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Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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