Follow the Money: Thousands Spent to Block a Michigan Union

Today’s Traverse City Record-Eagle opined on a transparency issue at Northwestern Michigan College over exorbitant legal fees they paid to the silk-stocking law firm, Miller Canfield. At $500 an hour, the community college was charged a whopping $46,000+ by the downstate firm to guide school administrators through a number of policy, personnel, and unionization issues.


Miller Canfield billed $19,000 for advice leading to a controversial email sent to faculty members warning them of the possible pitfalls of allowing “third-party” collective bargaining control over their compensation. The letter had little effect — NMC employees overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionization.

The Record-Eagle is demanding full disclosure on the purpose of the remaining $27,000 paid to Miller Canfield. The law firm’s response to the paper’s Freedom of Information Act request turned-up a “heavily redacted” document that spoke little of where and how tax payer dollars were spent. Miller Canfield attorneys invoked attorney-client privilege as reason for their heavy-handed use of the Sharpie. The Record-Eagle correctly points out that only the client may make that claim — and in the case of a public body, those rights are limited.

There’s another question to be asked here — what does Miller Canfield do with all that pretty-pretty money?

Well, a good portion of it goes to grease Michigan’s political skids, as reported by Follow the Money, they’ve showered candidates and PACs with their largess:

MC overview

Source: National Institute on Money in State Politics

Make no mistake, Miller Canfield is an equal opportunity schmoozer — having spread their political influence generously on both sides of the aisle over the years.

MC by party

Source: National Institute on Money in State Politics

While they certainly do seem to be covering all their bases, there is one item that should be a red flag for anyone who truly cares about education in Michigan. Miller Canfield has given $10,000 to the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) PAC , an organization devoted to the unfettered expansion of charter schools in Michigan.

Chad Phillips, of the Michigan Populist Blog, did some research on the organization, reporting that GLEP was launched in 2001 with funds from Dick and Betsy DeVos. Over the years, the extended family has given over $1 million cumulatively to the effort. Other funders include Daniel Gordon of Gordon Foods, Hendrick Meijer of Meijer Inc., and Jim and John Walton of Walmart. In 2006, Rick Snyder wrote them a check for $2,000.

GLEP’s primary goal at the outset was to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed by law in Michigan — an effort that was thwarted under the Granholm administration, but met with success under Gov. Snyder. Phillips writes that they proceeded to focus their considerable efforts on the goal “to recruit, train and fund candidates for elected office in Michigan.”

While it is still perfectly legal for Miller Canfield to indulge in such rich political spending, it remains questionable whether NMC administrators should engage the services of such a politically active law firm. This just adds to the appearance of impropriety.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Aramark’s Award-Winning Circle Jerk

Aramark — The World’s Most Ethical Company?

Aramark, the scandal-plagued private food vendor hired by Michigan to serve prison food was named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies by the Ethisphere Institute. This is the fifth time Aramark has taken the honor, and this time it occurred on the heels of news that the vendor served inmates food that rodents had nibbled upon. But that didn’t stop Eric J. Foss, the President and CEO of Aramark, from gushing praise in his press release:

“Every day, everywhere we operate around the world, our dedicated associates enrich and nourish the lives of those we serve with innovative and meaningful solutions. As a global leader, this prestigious honor reinforces our commitment to operating with the highest ethical standards and conducting business with the utmost integrity and respect, while delivering service excellence to our consumers, clients and community partners.”

The Ethisphere Institute started as a division of Corpedia, a for-profit ethics management company described by Bloomberg:

The company develops and implements ethics and compliance training and communication programs, as well as provides program management tools and materials that help to reduce risk exposure and protect organizations from ethics and compliance failures.

With approximately 500 corporate clients, Corpedia describes its client services as “a leading international think-tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability.”

Alex Brigham, Corpedia’s founder and CEO, launched the for-profit Ethisphere as an online survey back in 2007, and it has since grown to enjoy international stature. Brigham eventually spun it off as a separate entity, although he remains the rating company’s director. The two firms continue to share personnel and office space. Corpedia does provide services to numerous Ethisphere award winners, and Bishop readily concedes there are ethical questions about the scoring process —  as reported by Slate.

The scoring is based mostly on information provided by the companies themselves, and Ethisphere says its questionnaire should take 30 to 40 minutes to complete.

Brigham acknowledges that the system is imperfect. “Could they be lying to us?” he says. “Sure, they could. … Over time, we’re going to have to figure out how to verify that.

Ethisphere admits that there is additionally a smallish issue over reviewing clients they also receive money from, but refuses to label it a conflict of interest. In 2010, they found that 10 percent of the awardees had a relationship with the company, and 5 percent with Corpedia. Slate reports that a “relationship” is defined as one percent, or more, of the prior year’s sales. It is unknown if Aramark is among those with an additional “relationship” with Ethisphere or Corpedia, but it wouldn’t be surprising –they have ethics problems aplenty.

Of the over 10,000 companies nominated this year, Ethisphere bestowed their award on just 132 deemed the most ethical in the world. How Aramark made the short list for the fifth time is beyond comprehension.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Sunshine Week — Michigan’s Big Transparency Problem

images[7]As we wrap-up National Sunshine Week, that annual event where elected officials give lip service to the concept of governmental transparency, Michigan leaders can hardly claim to be walking on sunshine. However, they are taking some tentative steps in the right direction.

Baby Steps

On July 1st of this year, Public Act 563 of 2014 goes into full effect making Freedom of Information Act requests easier, cheaper and faster in Michigan. The new law requires public bodies to provide specific written guidelines explaining the FOIA process, an accounting of itemized costs, and the means for appeal of a denied request. Additionally, limits on allowable fees will prohibit some of the currently exorbitant charges imposed, often for the sole purpose of discouraging requests. The public body must furnish the records electronically if requested, putting an end to the expensive document dumps of the past. Increased punitive damages and fines will encourage compliance.

The law is a step forward, but Stephen Henderson, Editor at the Detroit Free Press would like to see more improvement, particularly in the area of fees:

It’s reasonable to ask why there are fees at all for retrieving information; governments collect taxes, in part, to fund their compliance with open-records laws. No one should have to hire and pay for a lawyer to shake loose information that belongs to them in the first place.

Campaign Finance Sunshine?

Michigan currently has legislation pending to address campaign finance transparency. If passed, House Bill 4184 will shed a little light on third-party “dark money” spending on candidate-related and ballot proposal ads, also known as “electioneering communications.” The identity of individuals sponsoring and paying for these ads would be required to be disclosed, in a timely manner, so as to inform the electorate of who may be attempting to sway their vote. The bill is being considered in the House Committee on Elections.

Seven other states join Michigan in weighing “dark money” disclosure legislation in 2015. In all, 17 proposals are pending, with the vast majority sponsored by Democrats. It’s no wonder though, Republicans outpace Democrats by a wide margin in the third-party money game.

dark money chart

Based on FEC data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics

It’s worth noting that multitudes of legislation on campaign finance reform are currently being considered in state legislatures across the nation — unfortunately though, little of it showing promise of easing the trend set in motion by the 2009 Citizens United ruling.

Dark Money in High Places

Wisconsin is at the nexus of the battle against the dark forces, and they appear to be losing their struggle for transparency. Their Supreme Court is poised to hear a case that will decide if candidates may openly coordinate/solicit with third-parties, tossing-out a state prohibition on direct communication. The Beloit Daily News offered this blunt assessment:

[F]our members of the court benefited to the tune of several million dollars in direct campaign support from groups now asking the justices to dismiss the investigation against them. It’s a conflict of interest of astonishing proportions. If those justices stay on the case and decide it, let’s call it what it is — corruption.

Now the organizations trying to kill the John Doe investigation are asking the Supreme Court to conduct its hearing and business in secrecy, locking out the press and public. Corruption is easier to practice when no one is allowed to watch.

Michigan’s Supreme Court has the potential for even greater corruption. Known as the poster child of dark money, millions are poured into electing the state’s high court officials, with precious little of it open to public disclosure. Rich Robinson of the non-partisan watchdog group, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, describes the problem:

“The problem with this unreported, unregulated advertising is that it can conceal the identity of a major campaign finance supporter who appears as a litigant before the justices on the Court. If such a supporter is involved in a case before the justices, his or her opponent in litigation is justified in asking the beneficiary of the support to recuse himself from the case….Without transparency the presumption of impartial justice is compromised.”

Passage of HB-4184 could demonstrate a long-overdue legislative commitment to campaign transparency. Democracy Tree advises readers not to hold their breath.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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GOP Legislative Lunacy — “A Political Wrecking Ball”

Mutinous State Legislatures Trammel the Democratic Process Over Same-sex Marriage and School Funding

State legislators across the nation aren’t content to simply paralyze their own branch of government, they’re actively working to undermine their respective judicial and executive branches through increasingly brazen unconstitutional acts of defiance. We’ve seen this at the national level with two recent high-profile examples of lawmakers overstepping their authority — the Congressional invitation to Netanyahu, and the letter to the Ayatollah from 47 rogue lawmakers — both were egregious acts of trespass on the separation of powers.

Democracy Tree recently reported on retaliatory legislation directed at state courts over their rulings citing lawmakers for not living-up to their constitutional duty to properly fund public schools. A study from the Center for American Progress takes aim at Republicans for thwarting judicial authority. The watchdog organization Gavel Grab reports:

[T]he Center for American Progress finds that “Conservative politicians are lashing out at courts that order equal funding for education,” as the report’s title states, and they are seeking to remove judges, reduce their authority or give the legislative and executive branches “exclusive control” over appointing judges. 

Same-sex Marriage Battle Sparks More Obstructive Lawmaking

In addition to the multitude of “Religious Freedom” bills specifically crafted to discriminate against the LGBT community, there are bills pending meant to cripple state courts over marriage rights.

Jamie Barnett and Liz Seaton, board members of the watchdog organization Justice at Stake, recently penned an article in Governing about the legislative “War on Our Courts” over same-sex marriage. The attorneys describe the national crisis:

The reality in many states is now this: Legislators are pushing bills to intimidate, punish or fire public employees, including judges, who recognize or grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This follows threats by legislators to impeach judges over single rulings they disagree with. In the wake of judges overturning state bans on marriage for same-sex couples, these impeachment calls have multiplied.

It’s not just Alabama

Texas and South Carolina – Both states are considering proposals to force courts to throw-out any case challenging the ban on same-sex marriage.

Oklahoma – Lawmakers up-the-ante with a rule to remove judges from office if they consider a case on same-sex marriage. State lawmakers are so fixated on the issue, they’ve introduced legislation to place marriage license authority strictly in the hands of clergy — inspiring Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, to suggest a possible name change for the Sooner State.


Iowa (earns the blue ribbon though) – Two years ago their legislature attempted to cut the pay of their supreme court justices by 85 percent after the high court overturned their ban on same-sex unions. Republicans additionally tried to impeach the justices. They subsequently ousted two justices through a richly bankrolled smear campaign.

The U. S. Constitution is clear on the impeachment issue — strictly limiting its application to “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A ruling, one way or another, on any issue is the courts’ constitutionally protected prerogative, not a criminal act. Barnett and Seaton warn:

If one judge were impeached over a decision, who honestly thinks that would be the end? In a hyperpartisan political climate, impeachment hearings could become all too common. No credible system of justice could survive such a political wrecking ball.

The U.S. Supreme Court must put a stop to this legislative lunacy when they rule on same-sex marriage later this year. In the meantime, GOP lawmakers may wish to brush-up on their civics — they probably don’t fully understand that the high court enjoys legislative and executive judicial review authority. Although the Constitution does not specifically confer this power, it has been the law of the land since 1803. To challenge it now would provoke a constitutional crisis most certainly resulting in chaos — an outcome that it seems would please these right-wing anarchists.

Update: Constitution Daily opines on the Supremacy Clause in the Alabama Supreme Court standoff with federal courts.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Throwback Thursday — Lawmakers Courser & Gamrat — Wild West Edition

The diabolic duo of Representatives Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat just can’t seem to give it a break. Over the past few weeks, the freshmen lawmakers have introduced legislation to return the women of the State of Michigan to a quaint bygone era when reproductive rights nary existed. The contrarian Tea Party team base their old-timey policies on the non-scientific leap of credulity that the fusion of gametes is the ethical equivalent of a full-fledged human being.

Alas, as with many proponents of far-right ideology, the sanctity of life apparently ends at birth… enter the gun lobby.

Today, these throwback-Thursday lawmakers shared more of their antiquated customs with fellow legislators through the introduction of two bills designed to do away with the state database of the purchase of pistols. The first intends to limit the recording of a transaction to just the buyer and the seller, and the second would lift the penalty for making a false statement on a pistol sales record.


Yes, Michigan will become the wild west, where the men packed pistols and the ladies knew their place — no show of ankles please.

House Bill 4339, of which Courser and Gamrat were the sole sponsors, will amend Public Act 372 of 1927, to eliminate the statewide pistol entry database maintained by the Michigan State Police Department. This bill is tie-barred to another piece of legislation (HB 4340) that amends Public Act 175 of 1927, concerning the code of criminal procedure on felony firearms — rendering moot the penalty for the act of lying on a pistol sales record, because… one will no longer exist.

Courser and Gamrat just strike it out:

HB 4340

The lawmakers are joined at the political hip through their Contract for Liberty, which among other things, makes the following assertion — of which we have no quarrel:

It is not the 2nd Amendment that keeps us free, but rather it is the people’s understanding of the importance of the 2nd Amendment and their willingness to defend it.

Understood — people want their guns. But, the Courser/Gamrat legislation attacks the idea of the registration of certain firearms, claiming it is not in the spirit of the Second Amendment. But, by that line of reasoning, all forms of personal identification should likewise be an affront to their delicate constitutional sensibilities, yet Tea Party adherents seem to be particularly fond of picture identification at the polling booth, as is required in Michigan.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin



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Michigan Tea Party Hostile to Women’s Rights

A Tea Party legislative assault on women’s reproductive rights.

As roads and bridges continue to crumble, and schools face dire fiscal straits, lawmakers remain focused on regressive policies that do nothing to improve the state of the state. Discrimination, dissonance, and double-standards are what Michigan voters have come to expect from their failed leaders.

imagesCA3KOZZQAt the reins of this cavalcade of retrograde public policy initiatives are Representatives Cindy Gamrat (R-80) and Todd Courser (R-82). Freshmen lawmakers both, elected to their districts on a platform of nineteenth century gibberish that has resulted in a barrage of culturally primitive and misogynistic legislation.

In recent weeks, they’ve offered a number of deceptively worded bills — including one work of dupery designed to make abortion illegal after 18 weeks, plus another, employing a legislative slight of hand that would revive the call for vaginal probes, and of course, the much expected “personhood” bill, titled Life at Conception Act, which earned Gamrat a warning from the Truth Squad over bad science:

[T]he act’s definition of what constitutes a human being may oversimplify scientific understanding of human development. If enforced, it would impinge on the right of women to exercise common forms of birth control.

Most recently though, they’ve jointly put forth House Bill 4309 — aka, the Religious Liberty and Conscience Protection ActOstensibly, the intent of this proposal is to protect healthcare payers, purchasers, providers, and facilities from being forced to participate in certain objectionable healthcare services based on their conscience.

As with all legislation, terminology must first be defined. Before considering the interpretation of “conscience” found in the proposed law,  here’s the accepted Merriam-Webster definition:

Merriam-Webster def of ConscienceRepresentatives Courser and Gamrat propose a slightly different idea of the meaning of the term (from the bill):

“Conscience” means sincerely held convictions arising from a belief in God or the tenets of an established religion, or from the ethical or moral principles of a generally recognized philosophy or belief system that an individual asserting those convictions can reference as a basis for those convictions. For purposes of this act, the conscience of an entity shall be determined by reference to existing or proposed religious, moral, or ethical guidelines, mission statement, constitution, bylaws, articles of incorporation, or regulations adhered to by the entity.

Okay, let’s parse this proposal with the graphic assistance of Miss Betty Bowers, the satirical genius behind targeting all things holier than thou — a spot-on vehicle for illustrating the hypocrisy of Courser and Gamrat.

On the one hand…


The bill would allow a healthcare payer, purchaser, provider or facility to decline offering “a health care service that violates the conscience of” their personal religious beliefs, regardless if it’s an insult to the Hippocratic Oath and the Constitution — thus resulting in a statute that codifies discrimination as part of Michigan compiled law.


Courser and Gamrat clearly understand the precarious nature of their proposal. So, dealing from the bottom of the deck, they offer a guarantee of indemnity for the acts of discrimination encouraged by the language of their bill, including legal cover prohibiting repercussions over the resulting unethical and unconstitutional misdeeds done in its name.

A person, public or private institution, or public official shall not discriminate against a health care payer or any person, association, corporation, or other entity operating an existing health care payer or attempting to establish a new health careBB4 payer, in any manner, including, but not limited to, denial, deprivation, or disqualification with respect to licensure, aid, assistance, benefit, privilege, or authorization because the health care payer is planning, proposing, or operating a health care payer that declines to pay for or arrange payment of a health care service that violates the conscience of the payer.

A public official, agency, or other entity shall not deny any form of aid, assistance, grants, or benefits to, or in any other manner coerce, disqualify, or discriminate against, a health care payer because the existing or proposed health care payer declines to pay for or arrange for the payment of a health care service that violates the conscience of the payer.

Absolved of their crimes in just two paragraphs.

Courser and Gamrat are not alone in their backwards thinking. Earning an “F” grade from NARAL Pro-Choice America, Michigan is currently one of 27 states actively hostile towards women’s healthcare rights. The Guttmacher Institute has been tracking legislative assaults on women since the year 2000, when Michigan was among thirteen states moving back in time. Today’s picture is much, much worse.

map of states hostile to abortion rights

Michigan is unique in its statutory restrictions on abortion. The previous legislature passed a law requiring women to carry a special rider policy to cover the procedure. Initially, these policies were unavailable, but seven insurers have made them an option for group employer plans only, at a cost of between one and 32 cents a month per employee.

Find Law lists a number of common restrictions on abortions across the nation. They offer the following caveat:

Interestingly enough, some of the statutes may be unconstitutional if challenged, based on prior Supreme Court rulings.

For more information on Michigan abortion laws click HERE and HERE.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Privatization: Food Service Feeding Frenzy Gives-Way to Janitorial Jackpot

Updated March 6, 2015

For-Profit Sharks Swarm the Public Sector Pool

Aramark cited privatized food services as a major growth area in their fourth quarter 2014 report, specifically in the lucrative North American sector — “As reported sales were up 7% and operating income was up 24%. Sales growth in the Education and Sports, Leisure and Corrections sectors were particularly notable as new business wins came onboard throughout the year.”

The private food and custodial vendor’s spotty track record proved to be of little deterrence as schools, corrections facilities, and sports venues eagerly signed contracts in the hope of jiggering their bottom line — often with frightful, unintended results.

The public sector pool is teeming with profiteers, feeding on the ignorance of leadership found in Republican-led states. And now they’re ready to wring profits out of the custodial market too.


Move over Aramark, there’s a new kid in town, and they’re poised to make a killing on public sector contracts. The Blackstone Group, parent company to GCA Services, a private custodial contractor, hauled-in a 2014 profit of $4.3 billion — up 24 percent from the previous year. Their CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, netted a cool $656 million, earning him the rank of 39th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. (Two months hence, Schwarzman has moved to the 36th position.) Another top executive with the firm, Jon Gray, raked-in $205 million.

GCA was acquired by Blackstone two years ago. Subsidiaries operate under a number of local and regional names, including: ABS, Acme Building Maintenance, Dependable Building Maintenance, National Building Maintenance, SBM Maintenance, Southern Building Services, Sunstates and TGH.

The company has a checkered history matching that of their competitor, Aramark. There have been instances where GCA failed to conduct basic background checks and hired sex and drug offenders to work in public schools. As reported by AFSCME:

GCA Services placed two custodians with drug and sex offense criminal records in schools. One of the custodians, in Tennessee, was charged with the rape of a 16-year-old student in a closet on school property during school hours. It was later discovered the employee had a criminal record for aggravated battery, assault and theft of property. Another, in Texas, was a registered sex offender who was found in a school locker room dead, with his pants down and a bag over his head. A GCA official said about the incidents, “You have to understand, we hire a lot of people. I think a couple of incidents with 20,000 employees is a pretty good batting record.”

Lack of background checks on workers is just the tip of the corruption iceberg. Among other GCA offenses are:

  • employee theft
  • breach of contract resulting in filthy schools
  • exposing students and staff to dangerous cleaning chemicals
  • understaffing
  • violations of federal labor laws and OSHA rules
  • inadequate employee compensation
  • hiring undocumented workers
  • intimidating workers attempting to unionize
  • surveillance of union activities
  • deceptive contract practices

UPDATE: One student and two staff members in Ann Arbor Public Schools suffered chemical burns from contact with toilet seats at a GCA facility. Read story HERE.

An Invitation for Corporate Corruption

A recent in-depth analysis on the privatization of janitorial services finds that educational facilities account for nearly 32 percent of the sector, with industry revenues expected to hit nearly $65 billion by 2018 — clearly a market ripe for the picking.

One Day in the Life of GCA

Yesterday, New Jersey’s Kean University announced their intention to outsource custodial and grounds services to GCA. Fifty-four full-time employees will lose their jobs where they had earned between $25 and $67 dollars per hour. They will be replaced with workers earning $22 an hour, with no guarantee of full-time employment.

Had university officials done their homework, they would have realized that their projected savings may come at too great a cost. Case in point — also in yesterday’s news was a story about Chesterfield County Schools, near Richmond, Virginia, where a recently inked GCA contract has become a hard lesson for school officials. The vendor’s employees are leaving school doors unlocked and lights left on overnight. The GCA turnover and understaffing problem is alarming. The company has failed to comply with reporting on their background checks for new employees. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports:

In one case, a woman who doesn’t work for the service recently returned a full set of school keys to Lloyd C. Bird High School because she said the custodian had been “thrown in jail.”


Trash piling-up in Chesterfield School locker room

“The restrooms are becoming a health hazard. There is ‘gunk’ (for lack of a better word) on the fixtures, in the sinks and toilets, and on the floors,” according to a written review of the service at her school by L.C. Bird Principal Laura Hebert. “There are not enough custodians during the day to keep up with the normal wear and tear on the building in addition to any unforeseen issues that arise.


Michigan schools have been increasingly on-board with privatization (some employ GCA, Ann Arbor of note), but that trend seems to be leveling off. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a champion of all things privatization, reports that nearly half of Michigan’s schools have contracted-out their custodial services to private vendors — a number up sharply from just over a dozen years ago when under 7 percent outsourced their janitors. Yet the trend line for privatization is flattening, even the Mackinac Center admits this may indicate a point of saturation. In their report, Michigan School Privatization Survey – 2014, the rate of privatization is slowing for good reason.

It could be that school support service privatization has topped out. In other words, there may come a time when all the districts that could contract out for quality services while simultaneously saving money have.

While we have the Mackinac Center under the microscope, it’s worth noting that they recently spanked the Michigan Education Association over the union’s privatization of custodial services, but truly, that’s simply not an apples-to-apples comparison against the state’s public school system.

Proponents of the virtues of privatization too often characterize those who question the wisdom of the practice as wholesale condemning it. But no, it is the vampiric relationship of corporate interests that taint the picture — soiling the honest desire to save taxpayer dollars.

Even the Mackinac Center knew when to call it quits — or at least they did a generation ago. Found in a dusty 1997 issue of Mackinac Center’s magazine, the Michigan Privatization Report, they advised public and private sector leaders on when to abandon a failed janitorial contract. From the article:

“Contracting out by government to private companies carries the same risks and benefits that private businesses assume when subcontracting to outside firms. For example, a private company might contract with a janitorial service because it believes the service can clean at less cost and higher quality than the company’s in-house janitors. The company in essence transfers to the janitorial service payroll costs including wages, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and benefits. If the janitorial service fails to properly clean the building or if the company fails to pay the negotiated price, the contract may be breached and become a matter of litigation.”

There ya go — from the Mackinac Center themselves.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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MICHIGAN: Aramark Sued Over Rotten Tacos

food trayAramark’s in the news again. This time they are being sued for “cruel and unusual punishment” by five former inmates who were housed at the Kent County Correctional Facility that became ill after consuming chicken tacos contaminated with a spore-producing bacteria known to cause intestinal illness. The incident occurred in April of 2012, and involved approximately 200 inmates.

The lawsuit additionally names Kent County and Sheriff Lawrence Stelma for their part in allowing the food-borne illness to occur due to recklessly contracting with a company that’s known to have a poor track record with correctional facilities. The suit states that the county acted with “deliberate indifference” by contracting with the “lowest bidder.” Aramark is known for low-balling bids to obtain contracts, then skimping on food and sanitation to squeeze out a profit.

Michigan’s affliation with Aramark has been a constant source of controversy. The three-year, $145 million dollar contract has been marked with repeated scandals, as has a similar agreement with the state of Ohio, who in spite of troubles with the company, recently decided to renew their two-year contract. Aramark has been levied significant fines for contractual breaches in both states — Ohio charged the company $272,300 and Michigan $200,000, after quietly waiving an additional $98,000 over violations.

Michigan has already paid the private vendor over $21 million.

Aramark pmts

Aramark employees in both Michigan and Ohio prisons have been found smuggling contraband and drugs. Earlier this month, an Aramark employee at Michigan’s St. Louis Correctional Facility pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the prison. At his March 23rd sentencing he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Aramark is also stirring-up controversy in the education sector.

Michigan State University

Last month, the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers SEIU union filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Aramark alleging discrepancies in a vote taken to unionize vendor employees at Michigan State University.

Vanderbilt University

Students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee were joined by faculty and staff in a protest over outsourcing third-shift custodial services to Aramark. The group, Vanderbilt Students for Nonviolence, organized the protest, as reported in the Vanderbilt Hustler:

“We wanted to get students aware of what’s happening on their campus,” said senior Margarette Webb, a VSN member who helped organize the event. “The fact that it’s the overnight shift means that a lot of students haven’t seen it happen. We want to make sure that students are aware of this so that we can mobilize that student force because on Vanderbilt’s campus, we are some of the only voices that the administration cares to listen to.”

Georgetown University

Georgetown University Aramark employees recently delivered a petition to their employer demanding their contract terms reflect those found at other D.C. based universities. The Georgetown Voice described their concerns:

The petition asserts that the workers are not second-class citizens. Demanding the same treatment as the food service employees at Aramark’s other D.C. based branches, including those at American University, Catholic University, and George Washington University, the workers asked for schedules of 40 paid hours, affordable health insurance, meaningful wage increases, protection for immigrant workers, and dignity and respect in the workplace. Over 70 percent of the unionized workers at Georgetown signed the petition.

University of Kentucky

Last June, the University of Kentucky signed a 15-year, $245 million contract with Aramark for food services at various campus locations. A Lexington, KY weekly publication — ACE, recently looked into how students felt about the new vendor, and the results are similar to those found in Chicago schools. A reporter conducted an informal student survey on the UK campus and came away with these as typical remarks:

“The food tastes worse.” –Brennan, UK Sophomore

“The fact that meals here are $9.67 is kind of ridiculous considering the quality of the food.” –Kayla, UK Junior

“They ruined Ovid’s.” –Robert, UK Sophomore

After an hour and a half at the Student Center, I finish surveying a simple random sample of students. The responses range from neutral to negative. Some of the upperclassmen don’t really mind the changes, some dislike them, and some hate them. Interestingly, no one mentions an improvement.

The Aramark contract with the university was cleverly written to let the vendor off the hook with a paltry fine for poor service and food quality. Each fall, a student survey is to be conducted, by the vendor, for the purpose of evaluating satisfaction with its services — measuring five Key Performance Indicators (KPI). If the company lags on its KPI ratings, the penalty is $100,000 to be paid to a scholarship fund.

The KPI measurement for nutrition and wellness is, contrary to its name, simply a requirement for Aramark to “make available and readily accessible… complete nutrition and dietary information on all menu items.” Aramark is neglecting to do this at UK — apparently it’s easier to pony-up a hundred grand than to comply.

Chicago Public Schools

Private sector opacity was again illustrated when Chicago Public Schools had a similar potted chickenexperience when WBEZ submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find-out what was in the Aramark chicken patties, and was informed they contained “Chicken patty, Bun”, and the ingredients for the chicken nuggets were “Chicken nuggets.” 

CPS just released the results of a comprehensive internal audit which contained some insights into the origins of its contract with Aramark. The report does not use the names of CPS employees, nor the companies it does business with, however piecing together the Aramark connection isn’t all that difficult. WBEZ reports that the CPS food chief, Leslie Fowler, a former Aramark executive was investigated for showing favoritism in awarding the contract to her former employer over another vendor.

From the CPS Office of the Inspector General’s annual report:

CPS OIG report

CPS has tangled with Aramark over another contract recently as well. Last fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Aramark to clean-up their act in Chicago Public Schools where they also hold a $260 million janitorial contract. Citing reports of  “filthy conditions, including dead rodents and bugs, and mouse droppings”, the Sun Times quotes the mayor:

“Aramark’s job is to clean the schools, so our principals and teachers can focus on their fundamental responsibility: education. They will either live up to that contract and clean up the schools or they can clean out their desks and get out.”

Read the Aramark RAP sheet here.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Emergency Manager’s Tag Sale Santa Goes to Hollywood

Okay, maybe not exactly Hollywood, but Flint’s second-hand Santa, sold-off in 2013 by the city’s Emergency Manager, is going to Boston to be in a 20th Century Fox production starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro in a movie titled “Joy“, about “the life of a struggling Long Island single mom who became one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs.”

Flint Santa

Santa’s cinderella story began back in May of 2013 — in what was the ultimate act of grinchitude, when Flint’s Emergency Manager, Ed Kurtz, sold the city’s Santa and reindeer display for $1330, as part of 400 items being put up for auction. The bidding on old St. Nick started at $5, but a group of concerned citizens pooled their resources and scraped together the winning bid in an effort to preserve the tradition of displaying Santa and his sleigh.

Flint Santa 2Flint resident Melodee Mabbitt organized the effort and has been Santa’s caretaker ever since. St. Nick will earn $500 for his role in the movie. Mabbitt intends to contribute his paycheck to the Flint Democracy Defense League, an organization dedicated to bringing full democracy back to the city. Flint has been under emergency management for over 4 years, and is joined by sixteen other Michigan municipalities and school districts impacted by the law.

Click here for a short video about the Flint Santa.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Michigan Lawmakers Try Again for a Transvaginal Probe Law

They tried it in 2012, and again in 2013, and now, after taking a year off, they’ve brought it back again. Did they think we’d forget, or not notice?

exam table

Each piece of legislation was carefully crafted to look like a routine and reasonable medical procedure — never mentioning the violation to a women’s body, but simply couching the assault in what looks like an effort to merely ascertain if indeed there is a pregnancy to be terminated.

The latest attempt, HB-4241, would prohibit a healthcare provider from performing a legal abortion without first determining if there is a fetal heartbeat. But, prior to 8 weeks gestation, a heartbeat and image can only be obtained through a transvaginal ultrasound. After 8 to 10 weeks, an abdominal ultrasound is sufficient.

It gets worse — the heart does not start to beat until 6 weeks gestation, meaning an abortion could not be performed prior to a detectable heartbeat. Gestational age starts from the first day after the last menstrual period. Therefore, the earliest detectable heartbeat would occur at 22 to 23 days post-conception. Over-the-counter tests can accurately detect pregnancy weeks before this proposed law would permit an abortion.

While the bill specifies that compliance “does not require the use of an intravaginal diagnostic procedure”, in the very next breath the proposed law says that if the examination does not detect a fetal heartbeat, the healthcare provider must do the following: (Note that the language already acknowledges the pregnancy.)

Advise the pregnant woman of the physician’s recommendation either to immediately perform an additional diagnostic procedure or procedures that may detect a fetal heartbeat or to delay until a later date performing a diagnostic procedure to determine if the fetus is physically developing. 

The previous two bills intending to force a woman to submit to this insult to her mind and body were similarly deceptively written.

There are certainly times when a patient and physician would opt to use the more invasive procedure at their own discretion, particularly when the viability of an intended pregnancy is in question. But, that decision should always remain with the patient, under the advice of her healthcare provider.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

(This morning I had the pleasure of addressing a Northwestern Michigan College journalism class about Democracy Tree. One of the stories I cited covering over the years, was the legislature’s repeated attempts to sneak through a transvaginal probe bill. So, today’s legislation was, er…timely? Yet, an unpleasant coincidence.)




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