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Shake-up at DOC continues: chief of staff Ronay gone

Thursday, October 6th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The exodus following the ouster of former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss continued this week: Buss’s chief of staff Dan Ronay quit his $120,000-a-year job yesterday.

The department’s spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said new DOC chief Ken Tucker accepted Ronay’s resignation yesterday, but did not say whether he was asked to step down.

Ronay was one of more than a dozen staffers Buss brought with him from Indiana, where Buss served as corrections chief. Gov. Rick Scott forced Buss to resign in August in the midst of a prison privatization effort ordered by the legislature that a Tallahassee judge recently ruled was unconstitutional because it was included in the budget instead of in a stand-alone bill.

Buss was fired late in August but will remain on the state payroll earning $145,000 until October to help with the transition, according to Scott’s office.

Judge rules prison privatization plan unconstitutional

Friday, September 30th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A Tallahassee circuit court judge has ruled that the prison privatization plan included by lawmakers in the state budget is unconstitutional.

Tallahassee Judge Jackie Fulford agreed with the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union representing correctional workers that filed the lawsuit, that the way the legislature ordered the privatization violated state law.

The privatization of 29 prisons in the southern portion of the state from Manatee County to Indian River County to the Florida Keys should have been mandated in a separate bill and not in proviso language in the budget, as lawmakers did in the must-pass budget approved in May and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, Fulford ruled.

“This Court concludes that if it is the will of the Legislature to itself initiate privatization of Florida prisons, as opposed to DOC, the Legislature must do so by general law, rather than ‘using the hidden recesses of the General Appropriations Act,’” Fulford wrote in her order issued Friday morning.

Lawmakers ordered the Department of Corrections to request bids for a single contract for the 18-county region, requiring that the winning vendor spend 7 percent less than current costs to operate the prisons, an estimated $22 million annual savings.

But under existing law, Fulford wrote, lawmakers must include a specific amount of money for the contract “after a decision to outsource is made and evaluated by DOC for feasibility, cost effectiveness, and efficiency, before DOC proceeds with any outsourcing of services.”

Former DOC secretary Ed Buss testified that he had created no such plan and was relying on the proviso language in the budget to move the privatization forward before he was fired by Scott last month.

“As such, the Legislature has by-passed the very safeguards it built into the process that DOC is required to follow when DOC initiates privatization pursuant to substantive law,” Fulford wrote.

In the proviso language, lawmakers also ordered that a private vendor take over the prisons by Jan. 1.

“From the record, it appears that the rush to meet the deadlines in the proviso has resulted in many shortcomings in the evaluation of whether privatization is in the best public interest as it relates to cost savings and effective service,” Fulford wrote.

Fulford made it clear that the state – which already has six privately-run prisons, including one in Palm Beach County – can expand prison privatization.

But, she ruled, “the Legislature may not change existing substantive law by a proviso in an appropriations act.”

Over Gov. Scott’s objections, ousted prisons chief gives deposition in prison privatization lawsuit

Monday, September 26th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Despite Gov. Rick Scott’s attempts to quash his testimony, former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss this afternoon spent two-and-a-half hours answering questions under oath for a lawsuit about a prison privatization effort ordered by lawmakers this spring.

Lawyers for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, who filed the lawsuit against Scott’s administration, had sought Buss’s testimony before a hearing slated for Thursday morning. The hearing will focus on the PBA’s allegation that the privatization of 29 prisons from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Florida Keys was unconstitutional because it was included at the last minute in the must-pass state budget, which the PBA contends is intended to deal strictly with spending rather than policy.

Reached by telephone, Buss refused to comment.

Last week, the First District Court of Appeals ordered that Buss give his deposition, upholding a lower court decision that the ousted secretary – fired by Scott last month – had unique information related to the privatization effort. Both courts rejected arguments by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawyers, representing Scott, that high-ranking officials – almost always named as defendants in court cases – should be immune from having to testify when information is available elsewhere.

The PBA contends its lawyers have been unable to get the information they need from e-mails requested from the corrections department.

PBA executive director Matt Puckett said that lawmakers’ gave Buss explicit directions on how the privatization would be handled but at the same time gave him carte blanche over a separate privatization of all of the agency’s health care services for inmates.

“He just wasn’t consulted,” Puckett said.

Appeals court denies Scott request for second review on deposition of ousted prisons chief

Friday, September 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The First District Court of Appeals rejected Gov. Rick Scott‘s request for a second review of a three-judge panel’s order yesterday that former corrections chief Ed Buss give a deposition in lawsuit over prison privatization.

The appellate court ordered Buss’s testimony yesterday after temporarily halting it last week. The Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents corrections workers, filed the lawsuit over the privatization of prisons in the southern portion of the state.

Lawmakers included the privatization of the 18-county region from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Florida Keys in proviso language inserted into the budget in the waning days of the session that ended in May. The union argued in the lawsuit that the privatization effort is unconstitutional because the must-pass budget is intended to deal solely with spending – not policy – matters.

A Tallahassee circuit judge ordered that Buss give his deposition, rejecting an appeal from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who represents Scott’s administration.

A three-judge appellate panel temporarily halted the deposition last week but yesterday ordered that Buss, who was dismissed by Scott last month, comply. Within hours, Scott appealed to the full court. This morning, that appeal was rejected.

Scott’s lawyers are arguing that high-ranking officials, named in most lawsuits against the state, are exempt from having to testify in every case.

Scott spokesman Lane Wright said yesterday the governor is fighting the deposition because of the precedent it could set.

“It’s not about this specific case. It’s about all cases. The doctrine protecting high-ranking officials from being deposed is a bedrock principle of Florida law. It’s about the principle of the thing,” Wright said.

No word yet from Scott’s office on whether they intend to take the case over the deposition to the Florida Supreme Court.

UPDATE: Appeals court orders ousted prisons chief to give deposition in privatization lawsuit

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott has appealed the appellate ruling ordering former DOC Secretary Ed Buss to give a deposition in the prison privatization lawsuit. Scott’s lawyers are asking that the full First District Court of Appeals reconsider yesterday’s three-judge panel’s ruling.
Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor’s office is appealing the decision about the deposition on principle because state law gives high-ranking officials immunity from testifying in lawsuits.
“It’s not about this specific case. It’s about all cases. The doctrine protecting high-ranking officials from being deposed is a bedrock principle of Florida law. It’s about the principle of the thing,” Wright said.

An appeals court ordered former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss, ousted by Gov. Rick Scott last month, to testify in a lawsuit over prison privatization filed by the union that represents correctional officers.

The First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee had temporarily halted Buss’s deposition last week, overturning a lower court ruling ordering him to be deposed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which filed the lawsuit.

But yesterday the appellate court agreed that Buss must give his deposition. Scott’s administration tried to block Buss’s testimony because Florida law protects high-ranking officials from having to testify in most court cases.

On Sept. 15, Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ordered Buss to give his deposition, agreeing with the union in her ruling that the former secretary is “reasonably likely to have unique discoverable knowledge of potentially relevant subject matter.”

Scott forced Buss to resign late last month citing “differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state.” One of the reasons for Buss’s ouster was his apparently less-than-enthusiastic support of the privatization of the 30 prisons from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Keys.

Lawmakers ordered all of the prisons in the 18-county region south of Polk County to the Florida Keys to be taken over by a private vendor in the budget passed this spring. The PBA is objecting that including the policy change in the must-pass spending plan is unconstitutional.

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Judge orders ousted DOC secretary Buss to testify in prisons lawsuit

Thursday, September 15th, 2011 by Dara Kam

A judge ordered former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss to testify in a lawsuit about the state’s privatization of prisons in the southern part of Florida.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford denied the state’s request to keep Buss, fired by Gov. Rick Scott late last month, from having to give a deposition in the lawsuit filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

Buss left the agency amid the privatization of more than one-third of the state’s prisons, the largest privatization effort in the country.

His abrupt resignation came after Scott’s office twice rebuked the former Indiana prisons chief over state contracts and after the termination of a contract with Elizabeth “Betty” Gondles, one of Buss’s hand-picked aides, for a possible conflict of interest with the privatization of the department’s health services.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, representing Scott’s administration in the lawsuit, argued that, because he is no longer secretary, Buss should not have to give a deposition.

But Fulford sided with the PBA, saying that Buss is “reasonably likely to have unique discoverable knowledge of potentially relevant subject matter” and that the PBA had tried unsuccessfully to get the information elsewhere.

The PBA is challenging the privatization, alleging that it is unconstitutional because it was included in proviso language in the state budget instead of a stand-alone bill creating state policy.

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 29.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander on prison boss ouster, mental health and more

Thursday, August 25th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate budget chief JD Alexander sat down with Gov. Rick Scott for an hour this afternoon at the Lake Wales lawmaker’s request. Alexander was there to pitch Scott on allowing USF Polytechnic to become a stand-alone university at its campus near his hometown.

Before leaving the Capitol, Alexander shared some thoughts about Scott’s ouster of corrections secretary Ed Buss, the $700 million cut to water management districts’ spending and issues coming up in the next legislative session.

Alexander said Buss’s resignation was called for, citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest with the woman Buss hired to oversee the privatization of the prison system’s health care.

And Alexander harshly criticized Buss’s business plan justifying the privatization of all prisons within an 18-county region encompassing the southern portion of the state, calling it “wholly inadequate.”

Alexander included the privatization of the Department of Corrections Region IV in the budget late during the legislative session that ended in May. He’s convinced it will save the state about $45 million.

Perhaps Buss was not as keen on privatization as others in Scott’s administration or the legislature had hoped, Alexander was asked.

“That’s probably true. Looking not from what he told me during session but what he did after session didn’t seem like he was really taking that seriously,” Alexander said.

Read what Alexander says about what the legislature may do about the water management districts, the shuttering of the prison health care watchdog and state contracts after the jump.
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Corrections shake-up: Scott prisons chief quits after six months on the job

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss has resigned six months after going to work for Gov. Rick Scott.

Buss will be replaced by Ken Tucker, currently assistant director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Tucker will not be named as an interim secretary but will take on full leadership of the department, sources in Scott’s office said.

In a statement, Scott said “differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state.”

Buss leaves as his agency undertakes the privatization of more than one-third of the state’s prisons in the region south of Ocala.

And his abrupt resignation comes after Scott’s office twice rebuked the former Indiana prisons chief over state contracts. Scott’s office this week forced out one of Buss’s hand-picked aides – Elizabeth “Betty” Gondles” after citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest with the privatization of the department’s health care services. Gondles’ $180,000, 10-month contract was terminated two months before it was scheduled to run out in October.

Last week, Scott’s office pulled requests for proposals from vendors bidding on health services for the state’s 100,000 inmates. Gondles, who oversaw the RFPs, is married to Jim Gondles, head of the American Correctional Association that accredits the facilities. The RFPs required that vendors pay for ACA membership and pay the organization to perform audits.

Also last week, Scott’s office canceled a contract Buss signed with MSNBC’s “Lockup” allowing a crew to film the reality show at a Panhandle prison. Scott’s aides said Buss hadn’t vetted the contract with them before signing it.

Scott locks down ‘Lockup’ filming in Panhandle prison

Thursday, August 18th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Santa Rosa C.I. Lt. Andrew Williams and film crew

More than a week after they began filming at a Panhandle prison, Gov. Rick Scott sent MSNBC‘s “Lockup” crew packing.

Scott’s office this week canceled the contract. Department of Corrections Ed Buss had agreed to allow the film crew to shoot at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton for about two months. The department would have received about $110,000 for the disruption.

Buss lacked the authority to sign the contract, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said, because it did not deal with the day-to-day operations of the state prison system.

Late last week, Buss’s office issued a press release touting the filming of the reality show in which prisoners, often heavily-tattooed, reveal what life is like behind bars.

A team from 44 Blue, the production company in charge of the series about life behind bars, began filming last week at the Milton facility. The series was scheduled to run sometime next year.

Buss worked with the production company while at his previous post as Indiana’s prisons chief.

“I have no qualms about them coming into our prisons. I’m proud of our staff and how well our facilities are run, and I hope this will help Floridians understand the challenges we face with our inmate population, as well as the benefits prisons provide to their communities through our programs and re-entry efforts,” Buss said in a press release last week. The release said Buss gave the film crew “unprecedented access” to inmates and staff who agreed to be on film.

Sources within Buss’s office said the warden sent the film crew home yesterday after hearing from Scott’s office.

Buss failed to vet the contract with Scott’s executive staff before signing it, Burgess said.

“The feeling is that it was outside the scope of the Department of Corrections purview to engage the state in an entertainment-related contract,” Burgess said. “Right now the “Lockup” contract is locked up and I don’t’ know if it’s going to be unlocked. It’s not going forward at this point.”

The contract was canceled the same week the department rescinded requests for proposals for privatizing health services in all of the state’s prisons.

MSNBC ‘Lockup’ crew headed to FL prison

Thursday, August 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Santa Rosa C.I. Lt. Andrew Williams and film crew

Florida officials have opened the gates at a Panhandle prison to MSNBC‘s “Lockup” film crew for two months, according to a Department of Corrections press release.

A team from 44 Blue, the production company in charge of the series about life behind bars, began filming this week at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton this month, the release said.

DOC Secretary Ed Buss worked with the production company in his previous post as head of Indiana prisons.

“I have no qualms about them coming into our prisons. I’m proud of our staff and how well our facilities are run, and I hope this will help Floridians understand the challenges we face with our inmate population, as well as the benefits prisons provide to their communities through our programs and re-entry efforts,” Buss said in the release.

The film crew will have “unprecedented access” to inmates and staff who want to be on film, the release said. The prison houses up to 1,614 adult males of all custody levels, including some with mental health issues, according to the release.

The series is expected to go on the air sometime next year.

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