State prisons chief canceled $98K fine against food service contractor Aramark

Gary Heinlein
News Lansing Bureau

The state prison director canceled an initial $98,000 fine against Aramark for problems in fulfilling its $145 million prison food services contract, Michigan’s Corrections Department confirmed Friday.

This marked the first time since the fine was announced in early March that the Corrections Department acknowledged publicly that Corrections Director Daniel Heyns had canceled it.

State officials issued the fine for Aramark’s failure to get approval to make meal substitutions 52 times, failure to make the appropriate number of meals 240 times and allowing 12 instances of poor staff conduct involving over-familiarity with prisoners.

It took over Michigan prison food service operations late last year and has been plagued with problems that included inadequate staffing and workers having inappropriate contact with inmates, resulting in more than 90 Aramark employees this year being suspended or banned from state prisons.

The revelation came after liberal group Progress Michigan released Thursday a March 13 email exchange between Gov. Rick Snyder’s Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore and Heyns discussing Aramark’s troubles and Heyns’ indication that he would delay or cancel the $98,000 fine.

“Director Heyns wanted to give Aramark some time to solve the problems we were experiencing,” department spokesman Russ Marlan said in a Friday email.

Heyns was attempting to “discourage staff from magnifying every contractual issue,” Marlan said.

In a brief email exchange on March 13, Heyns tells Muchmore he will “tone down my attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines and give Aramark time to solve the problems.”

“I met with one of their honchos today and he gets the picture,” Heyns said. “We were concerned about losing control of a joint and told them repeatedly with no improvement. Our corrective action was too harsh.”

The emails were obtained from a Freedom of Information request.

Democratic gubernatorial challenger Mark Schauer said Friday the Snyder administration “lied” by not revealing the $98,000 fine was rescinded against Aramark and that it showed “rank corruption.”

“Now we know that his chief of staff pressured his Corrections director not to issue that fine ... against an incompetent contractor,” Schauer said during a conference call with the press in which he accused the company of creating “an unsafe condition for state employees.”

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel countered Friday that there was nothing new in the email exchanges between Muchmore and Heyns. Schauer’s comment about corruption is unfounded, she said, adding that “this continual, willful distortion and twisting of facts, figures and information on so many fronts is really quite shameful.”

In a bid to defuse the controversy, the Corrections Department released Friday a March 13 email from Muchmore that had been redacted from the Freedom of Information request. Schauer and Progress Michigan had called for the email’s disclosure.

“Do we need to get drink?” Muchmore asked in the newly released email.

“I can always use one of those but not necessary,” Heyns responded in a previously released email before talking about delaying or canceling fines against Aramark.

Schauer reiterated Friday the contract “should have been terminated months ago.” Blasting the Snyder administration’s hiring of a private prison food provider, which resulted in 370 unionized state worker layoffs, isn’t new for Schauer, whose campaign is backed by several unions.

Snyder and the state fined Aramark $200,000 in August “and took decisive action and numerous appropriate steps to resolve the situation,” Wurfel said. The fine was for “unacceptable” errors.

Snyder decided in August to hirean independent contractor to oversee the prison food services contract. On Wednesday, the Snyder administration hired former Indiana corrections chief Edwin Buss at $160,000 a year to oversee the food service contract. His first-year salary is to be paid out of the fines levied against Aramark.

The food service contractor said in August an investigation by the Department of Corrections found Aramark was not responsible for multiple incidences of prison illness and maggot infestation in prison kitchens.

At the same time, the state made clear in a letter that Aramark still needs to “correct any sanitation violations” and create a plan to ensure “continued compliance with all applicable sanitation standards.”

gheinlein@detroitnews.com

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