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New prisons chief clashed with Gov. Scott's inner circle, hastened departure

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott scoured the country for the ideal candidate to take charge of the nation's third-largest prison system with its history of cronyism, insider dealing and dismal record of rehabilitating criminals.

His top choice, Edwin Buss, wound up lasting seven months.

Scott was forced to orchestrate the messy dismissal of his corrections secretary in a tense closed-door meeting Wednesday following a series of incidents that antagonized the governor's new chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, who exerted much closer scrutiny of the prison system than his predecessor.

Buss didn't expect to be gone so soon, having bought a $310,000 home in Tallahassee three months ago.

By Thursday, Buss' official portrait had been taken down from the walls of prisons all over Florida, leaving a gaping hole next to the smiling faces of Scott and Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Scott already has named Buss' replacement: Florida Department of Law Enforcement Deputy Commissioner Ken Tucker.

"Whenever it makes sense to change, things happen," Scott said in his first public remarks on Buss' exit. "Ed Buss and I just had a different management style and a different philosophy. … This is the right thing for the state."

Buss, 45, came to Florida from Indiana wearing the mantle of a reformer willing to make hard decisions to improve the Florida prison system. He quickly fired dozens of high-level bureaucrats, pushed for a 5 percent pay cut for wardens and closed two prisons to save money.

He advocated expanded re-entry programs to help inmates start new lives and told legislators he favored a re-examination of minimum mandatory sentences that clog prisons with nonviolent drug addicts.

Buss also handed a lucrative $180,000, 10-month health care consulting contract to Elizabeth Gondles, who worked for him in Indiana, and he failed to include Scott's office on contract decisions on at least two occasions.

Buss alienated key legislators as well as Scott's aides with his public statements and actions.

When the Legislature ordered Buss to privatize prisons in 18 South Florida counties to save money, the union for correctional officers filed a lawsuit, and Buss praised the action last month.

The massive expansion of prison privatization was not discussed publicly before lawmakers inserted it in the budget.

"I fully support their going ahead with the lawsuit," Buss told the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board, aligning himself with the union that aggressively worked to defeat Scott last year in the governor's race.

Buss may know corrections, but the Indiana system is one-fourth the size of Florida's, and his navigation of the treacherous shoals of Tallahassee politics was all on-the-job training. The ex-secretary did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

He didn't realize how closely some legislators monitor the Department of Corrections, which employs 27,000 people.

Buss also may not have known the agency's well-chronicled history of questionable contracts, which made the Governor's Office nervous when Buss crafted two major contracts without letting Scott's people review them.

One was Gondles' handling of an outsourcing contract for all health care services in prisons, which required vendors to be accredited by a firm that employs her husband.

The other was a deal to let MSNBC videotape six episodes of its Lockup series in a high-security prison in Milton.

Another contract caught the eye of Scott's people: Buss last month approved a change to an existing state contract with the Keefe Commissary Network, which operates prison canteens, that allows the firm to sell MP3 players to inmates so they can download music. Other firms, which employ lobbyists, wanted to seek that business, too.

In addition, Buss did not know MacNamara, who arrived in June, immediately became Scott's most trusted adviser and recoiled at Buss' desire for autonomy.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate's chief budget expert, said Buss' dismissal was warranted. Alexander was unhappy that Buss' deputy, Daniel Ronay, said a potential $25 million payout to prison workers who will lose their jobs to privatization could "cripple the agency."

A leading advocate of privatizing South Florida prisons, Alexander questioned Buss' commitment to the project.

"It didn't seem he was taking it that seriously," Alexander said.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a three-time chairwoman of the Senate panel overseeing prison issues, said Buss was punished for speaking his mind.

"I think Secretary Buss arrived with the expectation that he would have autonomy to make changes, but I think the governor, and/or his inner circle, was uncomfortable with that autonomy," Dockery said.

She said the prison privatization venture is a major policy shift that was not discussed publicly, and that the treatment of Buss would have a "chilling effect" on other agency heads who work for Scott.

"This guy was kind of bucking the system," Dockery said. "The guy happened to be independent enough to question things publicly, and it was his death knell."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael C. Bender and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

New prisons chief clashed with Gov. Scott's inner circle, hastened departure 08/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 26, 2011 11:27pm]
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