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Buss out as DOC head

Ed Buss
Ed Buss

By Sascha Cordner


Tallahassee, FL – Just eight months ago, Governor Rick Scott stole Edwin Buss away from Indiana and named him the head of the nation's third largest prison system. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, many are speculating as to what may have caused Buss' departure at Scott's request.

What was characterized as a difference in philosophy by the Governor, Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss resigned Wednesday after spending only six months on the job.

In his new role, Buss oversaw about 102-thousand inmates. A far cry, he says, from the 29-thousand inmates he had in Indiana.

"So, definitely the exercise in Indiana was good for me, all the years spent in the prisons and then in the administration, working for Governor Daniels was a wonderful experience and I just can't express in words how much I learned from him."

He didn't learn as much as he thought when Scott cited a difference in Buss' management style from his own.

Others outside the administration say his resignation may have to do with a filming contract, Buss' hiring decisions, and the prison privatization issue.

Buss was tasked with heading up the privatization of 30 South Florida prisons. His opinion on the effort:

"It is one of the most aggressive private prison expansions in the history of the United States, maybe the most aggressive."

But, it wasn't just prisons. Governor Rick Scott ran on a campaign of privatizing the health care services of inmates. Buss hired Elizabeth Gondles to oversee that. But, there were concerns from the Governor's office about a possible conflict of interest. Gondles was married to the head of the only organization that accredits prison medical services in the nation.

But, on August 22nd, Gondles employment with the state abruptly ended.

Lane Wright, the Governor's spokesman, says she was let out of her 180-thousand dollar contract because she had completed her work.

"Her employment agreement was for up to one year and she was able to finish her job a couple months early. We just didn't know when we started out how long it would take. So, at this point, she finished the job she set out to do, and at this point, her services were no longer needed."

But, before she left, the Department of Corrections cancelled five requests for bids Gondles worked on for privatizing health care services. Department Spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger didn't give an indication of why the bids were cancelled.

"For the bids for the inmate health care privatization, we've pulled back those RFPs and are reviewing those at this time."

As to the overall privatization of the 30 South Florida prisons, she says they are still on track as of August 18th.

The cost of privatizing prisons took a negative turn recently when it was found that taxpayers would have to foot the bill of up to 25-million dollars for close to 4-thousand displaced correctional officers. It was compensation for the time they never took off.

In some previous e-mails, Buss and his staff tried to warn Scott and the Legislature, but the push for privatization was already moving forward.

Governor Rick Scott, who has seemed to back prison privatization, says he's keeping an open mind.

"You know the way this works is you know if it does not save money, then we won't do it."

Scott also did away with a filming contract on MSNBC's cable television program called LOCKUP because he said Buss did not clear it with him first. However, after Buss resigned, Scott approved the 110-thousand dollar contract to film in a Panhandle prison.

Matt Puckett with the Florida Police Benevolent Association believes there is more to former Secretary Buss' departure.

"I think his comments on prison privatization if I was the vendor I would probably be a little concerned, maybe he didn't seem like he was totally onboard by that idea. I think that if you look at why he's gone, privatization of at least some functions of the Department of Corrections is going to be a cause. Now, whether or not that's influence from a vendor or someone. I think that's for someone else to decide."

Puckett says he felt Buss was never really given a chance. State Senator Mike Fasano, who Chairs the Senate's Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, says he was not surprised to see Buss leave the job

"We're finding now that the privatization that some, and I say some, pushed forward over the most recent legislative session is going to come back and cost the taxpayers over 25-million dollars. I think that it's unfortunate, but because of the questions that arose over the last few weeks, I was not surprised that he's tendered his resignation."

Fasano has been one of the strongest opponents of prison privatization. He says Buss is not the only one at fault, others can share the blame, including Scott.

The Governor named Florida Department of Law enforcement Deputy Commissioner Ken Tucker as the new Corrections' head. Both FPBA Executive Director Puckett and Senator Fasano say they believe Tucker is a good man for the job, with 34 years of law enforcement experience under his belt. But, Puckett says Tucker has inherited a mess, especially since he will now be named the defendant in the lawsuit the FBPA filed to stop the privatization of the South Florida prisons.