Photo above: Comptroller Peter Franchot chastises contractor.
By Rebecca Lessner
The fear of hungry inmates rioting at the Baltimore City Detention Center prompted top state officials to approve an emergency contract with a food vendor that had seriously underbid its three-year contract.
“We can’t wake up tomorrow morning and not serve food to the prisoners and have a riot on our hands,” said Gov. Larry Hogan at the Wednesday Board of Public Works meeting.
Comptroller Peter Franchot said, “This just might be the most troubling item that I’ve seen brought before this board in the nine years now I’ve been sitting, and believe me there were some doozies.”
Hogan deplored the mismanagement of the bidding process by the previous administration, which provided inflated counts of the number of meals per day.
Crystal Enterprises of Glenn Dale in Prince George’s County won the contract over Trinity Service Group of Oldsmar, Fla., which had been feeding the inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center and other nearby facilities for many years.
Crystal had underbid Trinity by a $51 million for the three-year contract. The new contractor promised to feed the prisoners for $1.43 a meal, while Trinity had been getting $2.035 under its existing food services contract.
Rats, roaches, broken equipment
When Crystal executives actually got to testify at the board meeting they said that once they moved into the prison facilities, they discovered over half the appliances needed repair and that the kitchens were infested with rats, roaches, mice and birds eating away at their supplies.
“Our health inspections have not been passed,” said Saundra Custis, CEO of Crystal. “Trinity did not have health inspections that were acceptable. We were given 60-days, from day one, to pour hundreds of thousands dollars into these facilities to pass.”
“After being on the account for a few weeks…financially it was not viable for us to continue under those conditions,” Saundra Custis said.
Trinity disputes this, stating in a press release after the meeting, “Through January 31, 2015, the last day Trinity served food in the facility, Trinity held in its name valid Baltimore City Health Department permits.”
According to the new Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Stephen Moyer, Crystal Enterprises approached him at the end of February, declaring there was an issue with the number of meals being served.
Number of meals biggest issue
“It was only on the day of the (last) Board of Public Works meeting that is was whispered to us, that the meal count was wrong, it’s as low as 18,000” said Thurman Custis, CFO of Crystal Enterprises. “We were in the hall crunching numbers and we said you know what, if it dips as low as 18,000 we can make that work.”
According to Moyer, the meal count is now between an estimated 16,000 and 17,000.
In an effort to stay afloat, Crystal asked the state to buy meals at $2.20, instead of the previously agreed upon $1.43, a 54% increase.
“We would be in a situation where food services would not have been provided…if we had just outright terminated and moved the new vendor out,” said Moyer.
Crystal asked for the new contract on Feb. 24, giving the state until Feb. 28 to decide.
“You gave four days notice to the state, put a gun to its head and said you’ve got to raise the rates,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot to Crystal representatives. “I find that to be deplorable.”
Moyer suggested a six-month emergency contract with Crystal, granting them an extra $6.6 million.
“I made the best judgement I could make with the information available to me at that time,” said Moyer. “You cannot go a day without feeding inmates in our facilities.”
The transition to find another vendor is a six-month process, according to Moyer.
AG investigation proposed
Hogan, Franchot and State Treasurer Nancy Kopp all felt cheated by the entire procurement process.
“I’m going to ask the governor if he would be willing to allow this matter to be referred to the office of the Attorney General for his review,” said Franchot.
Based on the review, Franchot hopes the Attorney General will determine if the failed contract is “simply a case of sloppiness or if there’s cause for further review by other appropriate agencies.”
Attorney Mike Johansen, representing Trinity, hopes the state will seek damages.
“I think the most important thing you could do, is hold Crystal to its promises, by terminating them not for convenience, which is a gift that let them off the hook and has no protection for the taxpayers, and terminate them for default,” said Johansen.
Hogan said: “I believe that we got to figure out how to stop this from ever happening again in state government, obviously, we have to rebid the contract…or provide the services ourselves, like we do with every other jail in the state.”
The emergency contract was begrudgingly passed with a 3-0 vote.
“I’m still of the opinion that we got to get to the bottom of what happened…but in the meantime we have to serve meals to prisoners,” said Hogan.