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Wednesday, October 01, 2014
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Published: Friday, 8/15/2014

COMMENTARY

Snyder’s image takes hit with prison, housing scandals

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder hasn’t presided over what most people would call a scandal-ridden administration. Not, certainly, by City of Detroit or Wayne County, Michigan, standards.

Until now, anyway.

From the standpoint of clean and efficient government, the last few weeks haven’t exactly been great. First, there was the continuing Aramark prison food services scandal, involving maggots on the chow line and workers being fired for everything from absenteeism to sexual contact with inmates.

Then, two days after last week’s primary election, a new scandal: Scott Woosley, the head of the Michigan State Housing Authority, was found to have charged huge amounts of questionable spending to his state expense account.

The Michigan Democratic Party used the state Freedom of Information Act to uncover the records, which showed, among other things, that Mr. Woosley charged the state $1,253 for a limo ride from Omaha to Lincoln, Neb.

He commonly billed the state hundreds of dollars for expensive meals and hotel rooms. Some of his expenses were denied, such as a “dinner” that consisted of three glasses of expensive rum. Confronted with all this, the housing official was unapologetic, saying all this was in “the normal course of doing business.”

However, what was most interesting is how the governor responded. Within barely one day, Scott Woosley was gone. Saying he didn’t want “to be a distraction,” he resigned immediately, which meant, of course, that he’d been effectively fired.

Later the same day, the governor finally moved to address the problems with Aramark Correctional Services, the company hired to run food services for Michigan’s state prisons.

But to the surprise — and dismay — of many, the governor did not cancel the Aramark contract and announce new bids would be taken. Instead, he fined the company $200,000 and said he would “require the company to redesign their current training and staffing procedures.” The governor also said the state was somewhat to blame for the problems, and pledged to use the money from the fine to appoint a “contract oversight senior adviser.”

Immediately, the head of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the prison workers’ union, denounced the governor’s action as “nothing ... a slap on the wrist within the context of a $145 million contract.”

Eileen Liska, a former state lobbyist, sent a widely distributed email calling Mr. Snyder a “corporate lackey” committed to “getting rid of unionized state employees who did a perfectly fine job and replacing them with private companies,” which save money by hiring incompetent workers and paying them less.

That’s also the position held by Mark Schauer, the Democratic nominee for governor, who flatly said “privatizing prison food service was a mistake.” He said that if he is elected, he will cancel the contract and bring back the state workers.

All this came days after a new Marketing Resource Group poll showed the governor and his challenger statistically tied. In March, the polling firm, which typically works for Republicans, showed the governor eight points ahead.

Will the food service and housing director scandals have any effect on the November election?

Susan Demas, the editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said: “In general, voters don’t tend to pay much attention to individual scandals. However, when you can make the case that there’s a pattern of corrupt or unsavory behavior, that theme can resonate with voters.” She noted that the governor has had previous controversies, including a contract for office renovation awarded to a firm owned by George Snyder, the governor’s cousin.

However, she added, “it’s really up to Democrats to shape a clear message tying these scandals together, and it remains to be seen if the media will take this seriously.”

But she noted: “Snyder does have to be careful with these two scandals. [He] isn’t sending the message that he’s serious about dealing with bad actors [and] runs the risk of looking tone-deaf.”

Less than two years ago, it looked as if former Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop’s political career might be over. After he was denied the GOP nomination for state attorney general in 2010, he ran for Oakland County prosecutor in 2012 but lost to incumbent Democrat Jessica Cooper.

What a difference a few months make. When U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers unexpectedly decided to retire this year, Mr. Bishop jumped into the race to succeed him, and last week he handily won the GOP nomination, beating state Rep. Tom McMillan.

The Lansing-based district leans Republican, and Mr. Bishop is favored to win in November against Democrat Eric Schertzing, who is Ingham County treasurer and head of its land bank.

This doesn’t please backers of the New International Trade Crossing bridge. Mr. Bishop has long helped Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun in his efforts to stop a new bridge over the Detroit River.

Mr. Moroun, in turn, has contributed to Mr. Bishop’s campaigns. According to one prominent Washington lobbyist, Mr. Bishop promised to allow a vote on a new bridge when he was in the Senate, but then went back on his word.

“Someone needs to do something to help Eric Schertzing,” the lobbyist said. It will be interesting to see whether that means serious money to help his campaign, if the polls show the race is competitive.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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