Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Edwin Buss abruptly resigns as Florida prisons chief

TALLAHASSEE — Edwin Buss' ambitious effort to reform Florida's prison system abruptly ended Wednesday on the heels of a power struggle with Gov. Rick Scott and his staff.

The corrections secretary offered his resignation at a late-afternoon meeting in the Capitol with Scott and the governor's chief of staff, Steve MacNamara.

"He tendered his resignation and offered to help with the transition, and the offer was accepted," said MacNamara, whose strong-willed manner clashed with Buss' independent style.

Buss declined to comment.

Within minutes, Scott named Ken Tucker, a career law enforcement officer and deputy commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as chief of the nation's third-largest prison system, promising even more upheaval for prison employees still adjusting to Buss.

A soft-spoken U.S. Army veteran, Buss seemed unprepared for the amount of scrutiny legislators, interest groups and media give to Florida's prisons, which have a legacy of controversy and scandal. He also said he had more autonomy in his previous job as chief of prisons in Indiana.

Buss, 45, ran afoul of Scott aides on two recent issues.

He did not let the Governor's Office review a health care privatization contract worth up to $400 million before posting it on the agency website. The contract stipulated that health care vendors must be accredited by the American Correctional Association, whose director, James Gondles, is the husband of Betty Gondles, the consultant Buss hired to prepare the contract.

Under pressure from Scott's office, Gondles ended her $180,000, 10-month consulting job Wednesday.

Buss also signed a deal with MSNBC to tape six episodes of its Lockup series in Santa Rosa Correctional Institution without letting Scott's attorneys review it. When the Governor's Office moved to cancel the contract, the prison system answered with an e-mail showing Scott's aides knew of the TV deal in April, but by then the contract was signed.

Ironically, Scott's lawyers approved the MSNBC contract hours before Buss resigned.

"Differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state," a statement from Scott said.

It was a dramatic turnaround from just eight months ago, when Scott's team found itself locked in a bidding war with Michigan for Buss, who built a national reputation as an innovator and cost-cutter while running Indiana's prisons.

Buss was paid $145,000 to manage 144 prisons and more than 27,000 employees, making him one of Scott's highest-paid agency heads. He was as enthusiastic about the challenge of reforming the agency as he was aghast at the decrepit condition of some of the state's older prisons.

"They're ready for change," Buss said of prison workers last month.

Buss advocated more compassionate treatment of inmates by expanding re-entry programs; eliminating smoking and pornography in prisons; closing prisons in Brevard and Hendry counties; and pushing for 12-hour shifts for corrections officers to give them more weekends off.

He also recruited a dozen top-level assistants from his former state of Indiana, where he began his career as a correctional officer.

The leader of the Florida prison guards' union, Matt Puckett of the Police Benevolent Association, said Scott should be embarrassed by the way Buss was treated.

"What kind of message does it send about Florida's work environment that a nationally recruited talent would be forced out after six months?" Puckett asked. "I guess everybody makes mistakes. He (Buss) only got to make one."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who oversees a Senate panel on prison spending, said the agency's history of suspect dealings in bids and contracts may have sealed Buss' fate.

"I'm not surprised that the secretary resigned after what was disclosed," Fasano said. "If he wasn't well aware of it, that disturbs me even more."

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he was saddened to hear of Buss' quick departure. "Many of us in the Legislature were excited about what we thought was going to be a policy shift away from 'bare and naked' incarceration to rehabilitation and re-entry," Rouson said.

Buss first revealed his lack of political savvy in March when he proposed shutting down Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, the state's only faith-based prison for women.

HCI was too costly to run, Buss' team said. But the prison enjoyed a cohesive and vocal network of local advocates, many of them retirees from Sun City Center, who successfully lobbied to keep the prison open.

Buss' mission became more complicated in May when the Legislature ordered him to privatize all 30 prisons in an 18-county region of South Florida, and to get it done in just six months.

The privatization has provoked massive anxiety as it threatens to end the careers of thousands of state prison workers.

Recently, Buss and his aides discovered they will have to pay up to $25 million to those employees for unused vacation and sick leave and accumulated compensatory time. Buss' chief deputy, Dan Ronay, said that unforeseen expense could "cripple the agency."

Tucker, 56, now inherits the privatization ventures and must oversee the execution of Manuel Valle — scheduled for Sept. 6 — the state's first execution in a year and a half.

Buss is the second agency head to leave prematurely in Scott's young administration.

Former state Rep. Carl Littlefield of Dade City resigned under fire from legislators in February after he was appointed to run the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Littlefield faced questions about lax oversight and allegations of sexual abuse at a Hillsborough County group home he supervised.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

Edwin Buss abruptly resigns as Florida prisons chief 08/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 11:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals


    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates


    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears


    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'


    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]