TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's choice to reform Florida's prison system came from Indiana and quickly decided the agency needed new leadership.
In a few months, Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss has hired more than a dozen people from his former state. They include his second-in-command, chief financial officer, personal secretary, regional coordinator and a warden — 14 people in all with a combined salary of more than $1 million.
Dan Ronay, Buss' deputy secretary and chief of staff, is the highest-paid Hoosier hire at $120,000 a year. He held a similar position in Indiana under Buss.
Ronay, known as "Chief," said he and Buss needed to move quickly to improve the nation's third-largest prison system in the wake of a scathing report by Scott's law-and-order transition team.
"Our team found that DOC is broken," the report said. "It is lacking leadership, vision and courage. … We found that a pattern of promoting from within has created an entrenched culture resistant to creativity and innovation."
Ronay said he read the report six times. In his first few weeks on the job, he fired more than 30 people and began building Buss' team by hiring and promoting others from within, while also raiding the Indiana system.
"If you come in and you don't know too many people, how long is it going to take you to fix your agency and do the things you need to do?" Ronay said. "When you reform things, there's some hurt, and there's some anxiety. People don't like change."
Also on Buss' Florida team are the prison system's chief financial officer, Ronald Miller Jr., who is paid $115,000, and Bill Carr, an assistant secretary for re-entry programs, at $110,000 a year. Both men held similar posts in Indiana.
All but four of Buss' Indiana hires earn at least $70,000 a year, according to salary data provided by the department.
The pipeline also includes warden Alan Chapman at Avon Park Correctional Institution; Steven Fox, a construction expert; Tahnee Casanova, who helps inmates make the transition to freedom; and Jim Cox and Latoya Lane, who are working to implement a case management system for the state's more than 100,000 inmates.
Ronay said most took vacant positions and are earning less money than their predecessors. Four of the new hires are African-American and two are Hispanic; five are women.
Ronay himself holds two posts, which saves money, he said.
At the same time, Ronay emphasized that some long-time agency employees were promoted, such as Russell Hosford, a former warden at a Wakulla County prison who now oversees all 144 prisons as deputy secretary for institutions.
Under Buss' direction, the notoriously insular prison system has become an incubator of new ideas from special prison dorms for veterans to more educational and re-entry efforts to reduce the chance that inmates will return to prison.
But Buss' zeal to improve the system has hit two hurdles in the past week, suggesting growing tension between Buss and the Governor's Office.
Scott's staff questioned Buss' decision to sign a deal with MSNBC to tape six episodes of its Lockup series at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton and ordered the contract scrapped. The network would have paid the state $110,000, and the prison system would have had final say on which scenes were used.
The Governor's Office also ordered changes to a bid proposal to privatize all prison health care services. The bid specified that a vendor must be accredited by the American Correctional Association.
The bid's author, health care consultant Betty Gondles — who also did work for Buss in Indiana — is the wife of the association's executive director, James Gondles. Gondles was hired on a 10-month contract for $180,000.
Buss did not respond to requests for comment. His spokeswoman, Gretl Plessinger, said Gondles' contract would be canceled by Wednesday "by mutual agreement."
Times/Herald staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.