In 2010, Wayne County privatized prisoner meals and awarded Canteen Correctional Services and Continental Distributors a five-year, $26 million contract to provide three-a-days to the adult and juvenile inmates at the county’s jail facilities.
A couple of years into the contract, the county’s Management and Budget Office received word that invoices from Continental/Canteen Correctional Services contained “irregularities.” Last year, federal authorities were handed a package of information alleging the possibly of millions in overcharges.
Next to the botched jail construction project, this contract may be one of the most mismanaged in the recent history of Wayne County – and that says a lot. The real scandal, however, is how Sheriff Benny Napoleon seems to tolerate a climate of administrative peccadillos that run the ethics gamut.
Privatization was intended to save money. But as WXYZ TV’s Heather Catallo reported, food service billings did not take into account a 2.8-cent per meal reduction that was to start in the second year of the contract. That modification was not “detected”by the department — or implemented by the vendor– until news leaked out of a possible federal investigation. Continental ultimately credited the county for $237,000. A subsequent audit found among 13 areas of concern that the sheriff missed out on a $2.5 million dollar grant from the state to pay for food in the Juvenile Detention Facility.
Sheriff Department administrators claimed that if the county paid for more food than necessary it was due to greater than expected complexities with food delivery. But was padding-the-count actually a way of circumventing the competitive bid process? Were the cost overruns poor oversight, or permitted with a wink and a nod?
In this volatile climate of county scandals and federal investigations, Napoleon ought to be anxious to show that neither he nor people under his command are playing fast and loose with taxpayer dollars. But that doesn’t appear to be the case as the department is rushing to rebid the food contract.
The current contract doesn’t technically expire until March 2015. Why the rush? It is to get ahead of the new county executive who takes office in January, and who may have issues with Napoleon’s record of contract oversight and vendor compliance? New bid requirements also appear to give Canteen/Continental preferential treatment, or at least the advantage. And prospective vendors are given less time to prep questions and prepare a proposal than the first time bid requests went out.
There are other allegations that cast doubt on the sheriff’s ability to judiciously manage his department. Federal authorities may also be looking into whether Napoleon improperly dispersed $5 million to four companies that provided inmate tethering and tracking services. The third-ranked supplier, Michigan Tether, received most of the money, even after the county’s purchasing director ordered the sheriff to divvy the amount between other vendors.
According to published reports, Michigan Tether, which also has a $3.7 million county dental contract, donated $40,000 to Napoleon campaigns. A social network for union employees owned by a Michigan Tether “principal” hired the wife of Napoleon’s chief of staff.
By charter, the sheriff’s mandated duties are restricted to operation of the jail. But Napoleon’s complaints about not having enough money to keep prisoners locked away may be complicated by his 41 appointees — 16 of whom are paid at least $100,000 annually.
An audit of the department’s 232 vehicles questioned charges to the department’s gas cards, including more than $265,000 for non-fuel purchases for which the sheriff couldn’t present receipts –as well as the necessity of 76 take-home vehicles assigned to employees with primarily administrative duties.
Napoleon’s vehicle and gas use may have violated state law. He admitted during an interview with WXYZ TV’s Ross Jones that he used county vehicles during his unsuccessful campaign for Detroit mayor. The sheriff may have to reimburse the county more than $10 thousand dollars.
The Sheriff’s Department is turning into an unsightly quagmire unable to command broad respect. Napoleon, though, seems to be laughing instead of acting to curtail this erosion of credibility and conscience.