2 Investigates: Questions over jail contractor's donations to Supervisor

The mother of a man who died in Santa Rita jail has recently filed a wrongful death claim against Alameda County, accusing the medical provider and jail staff of negligence. Tanti Martinez says her son’s death was preventable, and he was repeatedly denied surgeries that may have fixed a persistent breathing problem of which jail doctors were aware.

2 Investigates has been looking into the circumstances surrounding Mario Martinez’s death for months, and has uncovered a series of controversial medical calls, gaps in oversight, and questionable connections to public officials.

Now added to that list, a stream of campaign donations flowing from the jail’s embattled healthcare provider to a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

“Blood money”

Tanti Martinez has been on a mission since her son’s death inside Santa Rita jail July. Mario Martinez, 29, suffered an asthma attack in his cell, collapsed, and died in a common area. Medical records show that, for several months, Martinez had been complaining of nasal polyps that were making it difficult to breathe. Despite multiple court orders requiring the jail’s medical provider, Corizon Correctional Health, to treat the problem, Martinez suffered an asthma attack and died before the issue was ever fixed.

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

Tanti Martinez says she now wants Corizon, Sheriff Greg Ahern, and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors all to be held accountable for her son’s death. 

“Had he had the surgery – a basic outpatient procedure – that would have never happened,” she said. “Justice would be that they be held accountable. Justice would be that they are charged with my son’s death, which I feel is murder.”

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: See the timeline of events leading up to Mario Martinez's death

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 current contract with Corizon was originally put out to bid in 2008 as a three-year deal. But since then, it’s been extended repeatedly on the recommendation of the Sheriff and with the unanimous approval of the Board of Supervisors, and with an exemption from the public competitive bidding process.

During the period of time in which Corizon’s contract was repeatedly extended, 2 Investigates found the company was making political contributions to local elected officials, including District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley.

Public records show that between 2008 and 2012 Corizon donated at least $15,000 to Supervisor Nate Miley’s reelection campaigns and at least one of his political committees. According to county disclosure records, half of that money went to the Committee for a Healthy Alameda County in 2014, for which Miley was the chair.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate because the county allows for parties that contract with the county to give campaign contributions,” Miley said. “We have no restrictions on that. What we’re bound by is the law, the FPPC [Fair Political Practices Commission], and other types of laws that govern our acceptance of contributions.”

Corizon released a public statement defending its political contributions to Miley's campaigns and causes, saying in part, that he is among "the types of officials whose ideas we support and we are proud to give him our endorsement."

And Miley isn’t alone. Public documents show Corizon also 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.

WATCH: Questions surround jail contractor’s donations to Sheriff’s campaign

The Sheriff says he uses the donations to run a charity golf tournament, and the proceeds 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.

The Sheriff’s office is responsible for running Santa Rita jail, administering the contract for the provider of the jail’s medical care, and overseeing its performance. 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.

Tanti Martinez agrees, saying she thinks the money going to Miley and Ahern's campaigns is buying influence.

“They’re all getting paid and sadly it’s the inmates who are dying,” she said. “It is blood money. [The Sheriff’s] concern is his golf tournament.  That money – $20,000 – went to his golf tournament. Shame on you Sheriff, shame on you.”

In an August interview, Ahern told KTVU that he doesn’t believe a conflict of interest exists between accepting Corizon’s donations and supervising the company as a county vendor.

“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 said.

Board of Supervisors President Scott Haggerty also defended Ahern’s acceptance of campaign contributions from a county vendor whose services fall directly under his office’s purview.

“I don’t see it as a conflict of interest,” said Haggerty. “I think there’s a lot of mechanisms in place to create the transparency to let the public know that that’s where the money is coming from. So yes, it is appropriate because he did all the reporting that was necessary.”

A string of red flags?

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 re-bid 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,” the report’s authors wrote.

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.

When asked if the Grand Jury report should have been a red flag to county Supervisors about Corizon’s contract, Miley said he did believe the report was “a warning sign.”

“But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sign that should say ‘We should not extend, we should not approve an extension, we should put it out to bid,’” he said. “I don’t believe that necessarily obligates us to do that, but it is a warning sign that obligates us to take a look at that.”

Yet, 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 unanimously approved the proposal and granted Corizon an exemption.

A year before the Grand Jury report was issued, the county was already facing a lawsuit for the death of another inmate.  Martin Harrison, 49, was beaten and tased by Sheriff’s deputies at Santa Rita jail in 2010. The family’s attorney said Harrison was suffering from extreme alcohol withdrawal at the time. His family filed a federal lawsuit against the county in 2011, claiming that Corizon medical staff didn’t perform an adequate medical assessment and Harrison should have been hospitalized instead.

Corizon and Alameda County settled the lawsuit for $8.3 million early this year. The settlement was the largest of its kind in California history, according to the family’s attorney.

Again, when asked if the Harrison lawsuit or the seven-figure settlement should have been another red flag about Corizon’s performance, Miley said, “Yes, I believe it should have been a warning sign, yes.”

Board President Scott Haggerty disagreed, saying that the death of an inmate warrants reflection, but at the time, Harrison’s death was not cause for concerns about Corizon’s performance.

“Corizon deals with a difficult population and we’re doing the best that we can to get healthcare to these people,” Haggerty said.

“I can’t be in the jails. I can’t be in there all the time,” he continued. “I can’t be in that jail everyday making sure they hand out all the pill to all the inmates.”

Miley said he weighed the Grand Jury report, the Sheriff’s recommendation, and other factors when making his decision to vote for a contract extension. Among those reasons, Corizon’s agreement included a rebate that would give some money back to the county.

Miley told KTVU that he does not believe the Harrison settlement, the Grand Jury report, or Mario Martinez’s death collectively would necessarily warrant banning Corizon from bidding on a new contract, but that those factors would be taken into account if Corizon were to reapply.

“The contract is coming up for bid,” he said. “Clearly those are factors that need to be taken into consideration.”

The county’s General Services Agency confirmed that a Request for Proposal (RFP) has been initiated, beginning the first stages of the public bidding process.

A spokesperson for Corizon said that the company does plan to submit a bid for the county’s next inmate healthcare contract.

“We have a great record over 26 years of proven service in Alameda County,” said Martha Harbin, Director of External Relations for Corizon, “and we intend to be as competitive as possible to retain that.”

Checks and balances?

Tanti Martinez says she is looking for someone to be held accountable for her son’s death, and she believes the blame falls on all levels.

“When Corizon’s contract is canceled, when Corizon is shut down nationwide, when the Sheriff is held accountable, when the deputies who were in the [jail] pod with my son and did nothing to help him while he was suffering, gasping for air… when they’re all held accountable,” she said through tears, “When the Board of Supervisors is held accountable for bringing Corizon into Santa Rita knowing their history, that’s when I’ll have some rest.”

Miley told 2 Investigates that he believes as a board member he is accountable for Martinez’s death, but not responsible.

“Obviously we collectively as a body, the five of us, need to be held accountable,” Miley said, referring to the five elected Supervisors.

Miley told KTVU one of the reasons he voted to extend Corizon’s contract in 2013 was based on the recommendation of the Sheriff and a committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors called the Adult Inmate Medical Services (AIMS) panel.  According to the county, the panel was created “to independently assess the quality of medical services delivered to inmates in the Alameda County correctional system.”

But records maintained by the Alameda County Administrator's Office show the last time the AIMS panel met was September 24, 2014 when members took a tour of Santa Rita jail and its medical facilities. The office was unable to confirm whether the panel held any meetings in 2015.

The county also contracts an outside doctor, Dr. Calvin Benton, to oversee Corizon’s performance at Santa Rita and Glenn Dyer and to regularly report back to the AIMS panel and the Sheriff’s Department. In May, the county renewed a three-year contract with Benton worth $486,000.

But Dr. Benton has documented more problems with inmate medical care over the years. 

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. Ahern told KTVU that each of those documented issues has since been addressed.

But it’s unclear how much of those details and issues were shared with the Board of Supervisors by the members of the AIMS panel. KTVU’s request for reports and minutes of the AIMS panel meetings is still under review by the office of the County Counsel, which will determine if the records contain confidential medical information that prevents their public release, according to the County Administrator’s Office.

The AIMS panel is also supported by a private company hired by the county to audit inmate medical records for “quality assurance.”  According to county records, the job includes assessing “the quality of medical services delivered to inmates,” analyzing “randomly pulled clinical chart data,” and identifying “gaps in health care delivery.”

The job is currently open and was put out to bid earlier this year. According to the county, it has been awarded and a contract is pending.  

News questions, new demands

Tanti Martinez was in the audience for the first meeting of the Public Safety Community Relations Ad Hoc Committee on November 24. It was recently created by the Board of Supervisors to address public safety questions, including issues involving the Sheriff’s Department. Miley is the chairman.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s Department and the office of the County Counsel were also in attendance, while Martinez, family members, and supporters voiced their opinions about how the county was handling the response to Mario Martinez’s death. They also presented a list of demands.

Among them, Tanti Martinez demanded the immediate cancelation of Corizon’s contract and the suspension of the deputies who were working in the jail unit when her son died. Assistant County Counsel Andrea Weddle said the status of the deputies’ jobs was not public information because it is considered a confidential personnel matter within the Sheriff’s Department.

“It was disappointing to ask questions and we couldn’t get the answer,” said Martinez. And with Miley as the chair, Martinez said she is not confident that the ad hoc committee will provide a transparent process for looking into her son’s death.

“Money says a lot for people. They do a lot of things that shouldn’t happen,” she said. “I’m hoping this committee is going to do the right thing by my family. I’m hoping they’re going to take to heart everything that was said today and really, really do the right thing in the end.”

Martinez also requested more information from the committee about the Sheriff’s Department’s procedure for addressing inmate grievances at Santa Rita, as well as details about how many inmates have died at the jail over the past 20 years.

The committee, whose only other member was Supervisor Richard Valle, agreed to research answers to some of Martinez’s questions and reconvene December 16.

Mom on a mission

It all adds up to negligence in the eyes of Tanti Martinez. Her claim against the county does not specify damages, but asks for more than $25,000. She says, more importantly, she wants her demands for increased oversight inside Santa Rita jail and within the Sheriff’s Department to be taken seriously.

“They’re responsible for his [my son's] death. Had he had the procedure done, he would be here today,” she said.

Martinez traveled to Philadelphia in September in hopes of getting the attention of Pope Francis, who visited a Pennsylvania jail serviced by Corizon during his trip to the U.S.

“He can relate to how I feel and how so many others feel that are not seen, that are just ignored, nobody hears their cries,” she said.

The grieving mother shared her son’s story with anyone who would listen, marched in the streets, and rallied alongside other criminal justice activists with the support of the PICO Network, a faith-based community organization based in Oakland. Martinez said her faith is helping her through the difficult times.

“It’s just falling into place. Everybody who needs to be a part of this is,” she said, “and I feel that that’s God. God is doing this. He’s seen what happened to my son that day.”

In addition to the claim against the county, Martinez says she’ll continue to push for Corizon’s contract to be terminated and public officials to be held responsible for her son’s death. She says she’s determined to keep going, because her son isn’t here to do it for himself.

“I have to be a voice now, because when he had a voice no one heard.”


Corizon sent KTVU the following statements regarding the campaign contributions the company has made to Supervisor Nate Miley and in support of the Committee for a Healthy Alameda County:

Statement on contributions to Alameda Supervisor Nate Miley:

Alameda Supervisor Nate Miley has demonstrated throughout his tenure in office his understanding and support of a robust continuum of community health services, which we know through our work providing health services to the vulnerable jail population, is a vital component to lowering rates of crime and incarceration and reducing recidivism, particularly among the mentally ill and those with substance abuse issues. His support of Measure AA is just one of many examples where he has shown leadership in this area. On behalf of our 150 employees who live in Alameda and work every day in one of society’s most challenging settings in which to provide healthcare, these are the types of officials whose ideas we support and we are proud to give him our endorsement.

Statement on contributions to Measure AA, supported by Committee for a Healthy Alameda County:

On behalf of Corizon Health’s 150 healthcare workers in Alameda, we were proud to contribute to the Committee for a Healthy Alameda to support the passage of Measure AA, which reauthorized the half-cent sales and use tax for healthcare safety net funding. We have provided health services in Alameda County’s jails for the past 26 years and work closely with community health providers to ensure continuity of care to those re-entering society. Successfully transitioning from jail health services to a community provider is a key factor in reducing recidivism rates, especially for those with mental illness. The county’s half-cent tax for critical health services does not fund Corizon’s contract with the Sheriff’s Office.

Other programs we have supported as part of our commitment to supporting the communities in which we live and work include Open Gate, a program at the Alameda Community College that supports inmates who are released and are enrolled in the college; Supervisor Keith Carson’s Community Health Program; Supervisor Nate Miley’s Senior Health initiative; the Oral Lee Brown Foundation, a program that takes children from under-privileged families and provides financial and academic support from primary school through college; and the Sandre Swanson Foundation, an initiative designed to provide assistance to at-risk youth. We also have provided funds to purchase clothing to allow those who are recently released from jail to dress appropriate for job interviews.

Martha Harbin
Director of External Relations, Corizon Health