2 Investigates: Questions surround jail contractor's donations to Sheriff's campaign

DUBLIN, Calif. (KTVU) -- On the heels of the death of an inmate at Santa Rita jail, 2 Investigates explored the relationship between county officials and the embattled company providing health care to inmates, and discovered some questionable connections.

Publicly-filed campaign disclosure forms show that Sheriff Greg Ahern, whose office is directly responsible for administering Corizon Correctional Health’s contract and overseeing its performance, has accepted more than $110,000 from the private company for his political campaigns.

Questionable Contributions

Corizon currently holds a contract with Alameda County worth $237 million in exchange for medical services at Santa Rita Jail and Glenn E. Dyer detention facility. The Tennessee-based company, which was previously named Prison Health Services (PHS), has been operating at Santa Rita since 1988.

2 Investigates discovered Alameda County’s active contract with Corizon was originally put out to bid in 2008 as a three-year deal. But since then, it’s been extended repeatedly, including a three-year renewal starting in 2013 that was approved without going through the public competitive bidding process.

When the 2008 contract expired, the county Board of Supervisors twice approved optional one-year extensions written into the contract, with the Sheriff’s recommendation. Then in the summer of 2012, the Sheriff again wrote a letter to the board recommending the county approve a three-year extension of the Corizon deal, which included a recommendation to bypass the bidding procedures because “the public interest would not be served.”

“That's my recommendation to the board. So, the board agrees with me, so I think it's the best for Santa Rita Jail, Glen Dyer Jail and Alameda County,” said Ahern. “I agree with long term contracts.”

The county’s administrative code requires all contracted services with Alameda County in excess of $100,000 be decided by a competitive bidding process, also known as a Request for Proposal (RFP), unless the Board of Supervisors passes a resolution granting an exemption, as they did in Corizon’s case.

During the same period of time in which Corizon’s contract was being repeatedly renewed, 2 Investigates found the company was making political contributions to Ahern’s re-election campaigns. Public documents show Corizon donated a total of $110,000 to support Ahern’s campaigns between 2006 and 2013.

Corizon has been Ahern’s single biggest campaign donor during each year that the corporation gave money to support his election, according to documents.

2 Investigates also uncovered political donations to Ahern from two other contractors providing services at Santa Rita Jail or competing for new business there. Aramark, which has provided the jails’ food services, donated $11,500 to the Sheriff from 2008 to 2009. Two companies bidding to provide video visitation systems at the jail, Securus Technologies and GTL, also donated a total of $20,000 to Ahern’s election efforts, according to public disclosure documents.

The Sheriff insists the donations from Corizon don’t go into his own pocket, because he’s run unopposed in the last ­­­­three elections. He says he uses the donations to run a charity golf tournament.  Ahern says proceeds from the tournament go into a trust fund for Sheriff’s Deputies in need of financial assistance because of medical problems. Corizon is also one of the golf tournament’s sponsors.

“Well, I run my golf tournament through my campaign,” said Ahern. “And running a golf tournament for 160 golfers is very expensive, so Corizon is the main sponsorship for that.”

Corizon’s Vice President of Business Development Michael Miller told KTVU the company holds no expectations when Corizon gives money to Ahern’s campaign. When asked why Corizon had repeatedly made five-figure political contributions to Ahern, Miller would only say, “I think that's something you'd have to ask the Sheriff."

READ: Campaign disclosure documents show Corizon money going to Sheriff's campaigns

 


Ahern isn’t alone in accepting campaign contributions from Corizon. The company has donated to national and local elected officials all over the country.

In Alameda County, records show that between 2008 and 2012 Corizon gave $6,500 to Supervisor Nate Miley, who is the chair of the Procurement and Contracting Committee. Disclosure records also show Corizon gave at least $10,000 to the Committee for a Healthy Alameda County in 2014, for which Miley is the chair. Miley could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls from KTVU.

In Tulare County, records show in early 2014 Corizon gave $2,500 to the campaign supporting Sheriff Mike Bourdreaux’s election. Seven months earlier the company won a $9 million dollar contract to provide health care at county jails.

Conflict of Interest?

While accepting Corizon’s campaign money is not illegal, consumer and government watchdogs question whether the Sheriff’s relationship with a contractor directly under his office’s purview appears to be too cozy.

“There's a concern that they're making campaign contributions to get access to the Sheriff, who ultimately has backed their proposals to renew their contract,” said Emily Rusch, Executive Director of the California Public Insterest Research Group (CalPIRG).

When pressed about whether there’s a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one, Ahern replied, “I don’t think so.” He went on, “You know, these people (Corizon) aren't my friends. These are my partners, we golf, so they do contribute to my campaign. So, I don't think there's a conflict of interest.”

Ahern also reiterated that the details of contract negotiations don’t fall under his direct control. The General Services Agency (GSA) is the branch of county government that organizes the bidding process, procurement, and execution of contracts for Alameda County.

“The transparency is really held confidential by the General Services Agency,” Ahern said. “So, they are the ones that oversee that bidding process and the transparency isn't even up to my layer. I don't know how those interviews, those transactions, those scores are managed.”

But in the case of Corizon’s most recent contract extension, the Board of Supervisors granted an exemption from the confidential bidding process run by the GSA, on the Sheriff’s recommendation.

When asked why he recommended bypassing the bidding process, Ahern said “it stalls out what we need to do. It delays our operation and makes us less efficient each time we go out for these bids.”

This isn’t the first time Corizon’s contract management and relationship with the county has faced criticism. In 2012, a Grand Jury examined five of Alameda County’s largest contracts, including Corizon’s, and issued a report that found “a systemic problem exists within the county involving a lack of contract oversight and evaluation.”

READ: Complete Alameda County Grand Jury Report 2011-2012

The report criticized the fact that Corizon’s contract was not publicly rebid for several years and that there was no performance evaluation of the company before the contract extension was approved by the Board of Supervisors.

“The Grand Jury is concerned that once vendors are chosen, weak oversight and the lack of formal evaluations of contracts put taxpayer dollars at risk.”

Among its final recommendations, the Grand Jury suggested that the county require “evidence-based evaluations” of vendors like Corizon before “large dollar” contracts are renewed.

But 2 Investigates discovered that just one month after the Grand Jury report was submitted, the Sheriff recommended that Corizon’s contract be extended by three years without a competitive bid, and the Board of Supervisors approved the proposal and granted Corizon an exemption.

Murky Ethics

Corizon’s performance is under scrutiny in Alameda County after the death of an inmate in Santa Rita in July.

Mario Martinez, 29, suffered an asthma attack in his cell, collapsed, and died in a common area of the jail. 2 Investigates discovered that, for months, Martinez had been complaining of nasal polyps that were obstructing his breathing. Despite multiple court orders requiring Corizon to treat the problem, he died before the issue was ever fixed.

Now Martinez’s mother wants an investigation into the circumstances of his death and answers about why her son never received the surgery he needed. She also wants the Board of Supervisors to reexamine whether the county should be doing business with Corizon.

WATCH: Inmate’s death at Santa Rita jail raises questions about private medical company

Martinez’s death comes just months after Corizon and Alameda County settled a federal lawsuit for $8.3 million over the death of another inmate in 2010. Martin Harrison, 49, was beaten and tased by Sheriff’s deputies at Santa Rita jail. The family’s attorney said Harrison was suffering from extreme alcohol withdrawal at the time. The lawsuit claimed jail medical staff didn’t perform an adequate medical assessment and Harrison should have been hospitalized instead. The settlement was the largest of its kind in California history, according to the family’s attorney.

2 Investigates also discovered an outside doctor hired to oversee Corizon’s performance at Santa Rita jail has documented more problems with inmate medical care over the years.

Dr. Calvin Benton was hired by the county to provide medical consulting and “quality assurance services” at Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer. In May, the county renewed a three-year contract with Benton worth $486,000.

In monthly letters to the Sheriff’s office, Benton reported issues with inmates given the wrong medicines, physicals performed improperly, inadequate staffing, and inexperienced staff, among other problems.

In December 2013, Benton reported about a “close call” for an inmate who suffered from sleep apnea and needed a CPAP machine while sleeping. But Corizon’s policy was not to provide one, according to the letter.

“His condition deteriorated and he was hospitalized with respiratory failure pneumonia and sepsis, he was critically ill when hospitalized,” Benton wrote. “In my opinion this was a very close call and could have resulted in a fatality which could have been avoided.”

In an email to Dr. Harold Orr, Corizon’s Chief Clinical Officer for the Western Region, Benton criticized the treatment being given at the outpatient medical housing unit at Santa Rita, saying “it appears to be a revolving door to get them in and get them out ASAP, no evaluation.”

When asked about the issues in Benton’s reports, Ahern said “each and every one of those have been answered.”

“I think they're a good partner and they do provide a good service for our inmates at our two jail facilities,” Ahern continued. “They provide a level of care consistent with what the community would receive.”

Similarly, Orr told KTVU the lawsuits against the company do not reflect reality.

“When people take the time to really look to see what it is we do and how we do it, talk to the inmates who receive the care we provide, you're going to find that more often than not, they're going to tell you we really do a great job,” Orr said.

National Attention

2 Investigates discovered that Corizon’s legal troubles extend far beyond California. The company has settled numerous lawsuits across the nation, totaling tens of millions of dollars. In the last three years, Corizon has lost contracts in at least five states. Investigative reports were also published in three states criticizing Corizon’s operations, further putting the corporation under fire.

Recently, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors scheduled hearings to consider canceling Corizon’s contract over concerns about its quality of medical care. The board is expected to vote on whether to cancel the contract next year or grant a two-year extension to the company, at a meeting in Santa Maria on September 8.

This week in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania, where 11 inmates have reportedly died during the course of Corizon’s two-year contract, officials ousted the embattled company and turned control of jail medical care over to county administrators.

And in Georgia this year, a former Corizon employee and two former sheriff’s deputies were indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges for the death of an inmate. Last month, a prosecutor added perjury charges to the case, too.

In an interview with KTVU, Miller rebutted some of the criticism the company is facing nationwide.

“There's this notion out there that we're motivated to reduce care to save money,” he said. “That couldn't be further from the truth.”

“We're like no other correctional health care company that comes under fire for the care that we provide,” Miller continued, “but our health care studies and outcomes are proven within the contracts we serve, that we provide great, adequate, compassionate, evidence-based medicine. That's what we do.”

KTVU also reached out to the Alameda County GSA for comment on how the Corizon contract was being handled, and received the following email response:

The Corizon contract is administered by the Sheriff’s Office. The County’s contract with Corizon is a matter of public record and is available for public inspection and review.

The County is facing the possibility of litigation and is involved in various investigations regarding the recent death in the County jail.  The Corizon contract as well as the circumstances of the Mr. Martinez’s death will be subjects of  litigation and various investigations. 

Based on the ongoing investigations, the General Services Agency is not able to comment further at this time.   We are fully committed to ensuring that a comprehensive investigation into the death is conducted, and we are fully committed to ensure the safety of our inmates.   

Any time there is a loss of a life that is in the care of the County, we take such matters seriously.  The County extends deep condolences to the family of Mr. Martinez and all who loved him. 

Caroline Judy
Acting Director, General Services Agency
County of Alameda

Additionally, 2 Investigates made interview requests with all five Supervisors for Alameda County. Staff in three of their offices said they were out of town, and two others did not return calls for comment.

The office of Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi sent the following statement via email:

Any time there is a loss of a life that is in the care of the County, we take such matters seriously.  The County extends deep condolences to the family of Mr. Martinez and all who loved him. 

The County is facing the possibility of litigation and is involved in various investigations regarding the recent death in the County jail.  The Corizon contract as well as the circumstances of the death will be subjects of  litigation and various investigations.  Based on the ongoing investigations, the County Administrator’s Office is not able to comment  at this time.   We are fully committed to ensuring that a comprehensive investigation into the death is conducted, and we are fully committed to ensure the safety of our inmates.  The County’s contract with Corizon is a matter of public record and is available for public inspection and review. 

Donna R. Ziegler
County Counsel


INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Events leading up to the death of Mario Martinez

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