Lansing — Ed Buss, hired less than five months ago to oversee a controversial privatized state prison meal contract, has left his $160,000-a-year job despite improved performance by the food vendor in the final quarter of 2014.
The Department of Technology Management and Budget, where Buss was assigned to work, released a terse statement Thursday that didn't explain the sudden departure.
"Ed Buss is no longer working for DTMB as he has moved back to Florida with his wife and family," spokesman Caleb Buhs said in the statement. "He made some great strides during his time in Michigan, improving the performance of prison food service delivery."
Asked whether Buss was fired,said he was an "at-will employee and served at the pleasure of the DTMB director."
Buss, whose experience includes directing Indiana's prison system, was hired in early September as an independent monitor to help smooth out the troubled start of Michigan's transition from state-run to private company-provided prison meal services. Problems included many incidents of sex with prisoners, as well as drug smuggling and food quality issues involving employees of Philadelphia-based Aramark Correctional Services.
Buhs added that the department "is actively working" to fill the monitor's position, which oversees the state's $145 million, three-year contract with Aramark. The contract is supposed to save the state as much as $14 million a year.
A spokeswoman for Aramark said Thursday the company was unaware of Buss's departure and that company officials had no comment.
Before coming to Michigan, Buss worked in Florida as chief development officer for Tennessee-based Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., which provides medical and mental health care to prison and jail inmates.
In 2011, after six months on the job, Buss was forced out as Florida's prison chief after a series of clashes with Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican like Gov. Rick Snyder. He was among outsiders Scott hired to help him remake that state's government.
Buss' Michigan salary was being funded out of a $200,000 penalty Aramark agreed to pay the state for problems during the first nine months of its contract.
Michigan's December 2013 move to Aramark quickly led to controversy over numerous incidents of employee sex with inmates in prison kitchens, food shortages and menu changes that caused unrest. There were three incidents involving maggot infestations of unknown origin.
A campaign to get Snyder to dump Aramark was launched by unions representing corrections officers and the 700 state prison food service workers who lost their jobs in the privatization move. The unions continue to argue that the conduct of Aramark employees is roiling state prisons.
"They don't have the same mentality as corrections officers," said Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents those officers throughout the prison system. "They can be much more casual because they don't have to deal with what happens."
A Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman said 139 Aramark workers were banned from state prisons for misconduct through the end of last year — the first 13 months of the contract — but the firm's performance had improved considerably after Buss was hired.
During the final three months of 2014, there were about a half-dozen more incidents in which Aramark workers were banned for over-familiarity or sexual activity with inmates.
"Early on, there was a higher number of (Aramark worker) stop orders because the company was hiring people new to prison life, new to working under those conditions," spokesman Chris Gautz said. "We've seem a reduction in stop orders in recent months."
Stop orders are the department's term for banning someone's access to prisons. Aramark, which also has contracts for food service at the Oakland County Jail and at least nine other Michigan county jails, could have deployed the state-banned workers elsewhere but a spokeswoman said they all were fired.
"After almost four decades in the corrections business, we understand the paramount importance of safety and security," said Aramark communications director Karen Cutler. She said the company shares the state Department of Corrections' zero-tolerance policy for misconduct.
Cutler said issuing stop orders "is not an unusual occurrence in prisons across the country. Stop orders are issued for all types of positions, but only reported publicly when a private contractor is involved."
Union chief Grieshaber acknowledged the frequency of serious incidents involving Aramark workers has declined but said 139 banned workers in a single year still "is an amazing number."
"That's 20 or 25 percent" of the workers the company hired under its contract with the corrections department, Grieshaber said. "We know we have to live with them for three years and things still pop up."
Grieshaber said there was a silent protest by hundreds of inmates at one prison "in the last couple of weeks," adding that such unrest makes corrections officers' work riskier.
Cutler said Thursday her company "is very proud of our 400 dedicated employees (in Michigan prisons), who served more than 40 million meals over this past year in extremely challenging conditions.
"We knew the contract would be very complex and involve considerable hurdles," Cutler said. "A year later, working with (the corrections department), we have made tremendous progress with staffing and training and are confident this positive momentum will continue."