Corporatism, Rick Snyder — September 12, 2014 at 7:11 am

SCANDAL: Snyder administration quietly canceled $98K fine for for-profit prison food vendor Aramark, then things got much worse


This post has been updated.

I’ve written extensively about Aramark, the for-profit prison food vendor that supplies food services to prisons across Michigan. They’ve experienced repeated food shortages, employees bringing drugs and contraband to prisoners, employees having sex with prisoners, and most recently, maggots in multiple food preparation areas.

The state started cracking down on Aramark last March when they imposed at $98,000 fine for food shortages and unauthorized menu substitutions. Things didn’t get better, however, and, in August, they got hit with another fine, this one for $200,000.

However, after a FOIA request by Progress Michigan, we now learn that the original $98,000 fine was never imposed. It was, in fact, canceled with Snyder administration officials telling Aramark administrators that they had been “too harsh” on them.

In the e-mails, obtained by the liberal group Progress Michigan under the Freedom of Information Act, [Michigan Department of Corrections Director Dan] Heyns told a top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder that he cracked down on Aramark because “we were concerned about losing control of a joint,” but promised to ease up.

“I know where you want to go,” Heyns said in a March 13 e-mail to Dennis Muchmore, Snyder’s chief of staff.

“I will tone down my attack dogs, delay or cancel any fines and give Aramark time to solve the problems,” Heyns said.

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

The message Muchmore sent Heyns just prior to that was redacted by the state, according to Progress Michigan.

But earlier, Muchmore had forwarded Heyns a newspaper clipping about state lawmakers getting concerned about controversies surrounding the contract — particularly Aramark workers engaged in sex acts with inmates — and asked: “Do you feel you’ve got this under control?”

“Answer is no but I am working on it,” Heyns replied.

You can read the FOIAed emails HERE.

What this shows is that the Snyder administration was going easy on their for-profit vendor to whom they had outsourced last spring, hoping to tamp down public criticism of them and sweep the entire affair under the rug. Unfortunately, this appears to have had the opposite impact and things actually got worse in Aramark prisons. Instead of just food shortages, they were forced to ban over 80 Aramark employees from even entering Michigan prisons after they were caught bringing in drugs and cell phones and other items, engaging in sex acts with prisoners, and, of course, the notorious news that maggots were found in Aramark-run food facilities.

Keep in mind, Aramark is having problems in state prisons across the country. In Michigan, the Snyder administration thought that treating them with kid gloves and coddling them would fix the problems they were experiencing. Instead, the opposite was true.

Governor Snyder needs to admit that this experiment with privatizing an essential government service to a for-profit vendor has been a colossal failure, fire Aramark, and resume state control over prison food service. He assured us that things would be done more efficiently with a private corporation running things but that has proven to be just a dream in the mind of our CEO governor. It’s a clear indication that, when profits are on the line, corners will be cut and prisoners will suffer.

Instead, Gov. Snyder has chosen to put a man previously embroiled in prison administration controversy in charge of overseeing the Aramark contract:

Late Wednesday, the governor’s office said a former prison health care company executive, who served a short stint as head of the Florida prison system, will oversee monitoring of Michigan’s prison food contract.

Edwin Buss, who also used to run the Indiana Department of Corrections, will be paid $160,000 a year. His first year’s salary will come from fines levied against Aramark for violations of its $145-million, three-year contract with the State of Michigan, said Wurfel.

Buss was embroiled in questionable activities himself in the Florida prison system.

Lonnie Scott, Executive Director of Progress Michigan who uncovered this scandal released this statement:

What was said between Muchmore and Heyns that caused him to ‘tone down his attack dogs’ and cancel fines to Aramark? Was the Snyder administration trying to hide problems with Aramark from the public? Heyns states that he was concerned about ‘losing control of a joint,’ proving that the Aramark contract is a threat to public safety. The governor needs to do more than just slap Aramark on the wrist. He needs to end the contract immediately to protect not just taxpayer dollars, but taxpayers themselves.

In light of the information we’re releasing today, it is even more troubling that Gov. Snyder has announced that he’s chosen an ex-public official who has already been embroiled in controversy to oversee the state’s Aramark contract. You would think the governor would want to avoid any future scandals at all cost given what has happened within his administration, but it appears that his allegiance to corporate profits and privatization is greater than than his commitment to the people of Michigan.

UPDATE: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer is calling for Gov. Snyder to release all of the emails related to Aramark being given a pass on its initial fine:

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer today accused the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder of lying to the people of Michigan about a $98,000 fine levied against the state’s prison food contractor and called on Snyder to release an unredacted version of an e-mail exchange between his chief of staff and the prisons director.

Schauer, a former state lawmaker and one-term congressman from Battle Creek, also called on Snyder to immediately disclose whether Aramark Correctional Services of Philadelphia or any of its officials had donated to the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify (NERD) fund, a Snyder nonprofit fund that accepted undisclosed corporate donations and which Snyder announced in October he was disbanding. […]

Schauer said the redacted e-mail exchange shows a top aide to the governor pressuring a department director to give special treatment to a contractor.

He said after announcing the fine, the Snyder administration should not have let months go by without correcting the impression the fine was paid by Aramark.

“The governor has to take responsibility, through his spokespeople, for continuing to contend … that Aramark paid a $98,000 fine,” Schauer said.