December 30, 2014 11:13:40 AM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi Department of Corrections should eliminate as many of its no-bid contracts as possible and start a competitive process to see if it can get better deals, says a group that's reviewing the prison system after a former corrections commissioner was indicted on corruption charges.
The five-member task force met Monday and agreed on a dozen initial recommendations to give to Gov. Phil Bryant and lawmakers ahead of the three-month legislative session, which begins Jan. 6.
Bryant appointed the group in November after former Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps and businessman Cecil McCrory were indicted on federal corruption charges tied to prison contracts. The two men have pleaded not guilty and await trial in April.
Andy Taggart, an attorney who is co-chairman of the task force, said the recommendations are designed to promote transparency in government. He said even the tightest laws and regulations wouldn't prevent people from engaging in bribery or other corrupt acts, if they're inclined to do those things. However, Taggart said: "Our job is to make it as hard as possible."
The Department of Corrections has six current no-bid contracts that would need to be put up for competitive bids if officials accept the recommendation of the task force, said department spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher. She said three contracts are with Utah-based Management and Training Corporation to manage prisons in Mississippi; two are with Jackson-based Health Assurance LLC to provide medical services for inmates; and one is for The Keefe Group, based in Missouri, to provide commissary services in Mississippi prisons.
The task force, which will continue working several more months, recommends that all Department of Corrections contracts, no matter the dollar amount, go through a bid process.
It says independent investigators or a legislative watchdog committee should analyze whether the state should continue to use private companies to operate some of the prisons -- a practice that started in the mid-1990s. The task force also recommends that investigators or a legislative committee analyze management of the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility and the handling of commissary services within all state prisons.
Epps was commissioner for 12 years. He resigned from the $132,700-a-year job Nov. 5, and federal prosecutors the next day released the indictment charging him and McCrory, who is a former state representative. Prosecutors say that starting in 2007, Epps steered prison-services contracts toward companies with which McCrory was affiliated as owner or consultant. McCrory's company, G.T. Enterprises, was awarded a no-bid contract to provide inmate commissary services in 2007. The Keefe Group took over the commissary services contract in 2008 after its parent company, Centric Group, bought G.T. Enterprises, Fisher said.
In the commissary system, prisoners can receive money from their families to order items such as combs or candy bars and the items are usually delivered days later. The interim corrections commissioner, Rick McCarty, said the Department of Corrections used to run the commissary system without the help of a private contractor. One of the task force members, attorney Constance Slaughter-Harvey, said Monday that the department should consider taking over that responsibility again. She said she has received calls from inmates' relatives who say the high prices of commissary items are a financial burden.
The group also makes several recommendations that would affect all state agencies, if put in place:
-- Every agency would have to seek competitive bids on every contract that's worth at least $100,000.
-- Every vendor that has a contract with a state agency would have to file a disclosure form showing the name of and fees paid to any consultant who helped the vendor secure a state contract.
-- Every vendor with a state contract would have to disclose the name and address of any person who owns or controls more than 5 percent of the vendor's business.
-- All state agencies would have to post solicitations for bids on a state contract and procurement website that the public could search.
-- Agencies would have to post online an analysis of why it awards each of its contracts.