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 bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Edwin Buss abruptly resigns as Florida prisons chief 08/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 12:12am]

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