Sheriff Vic Regalado altered a key standard to bid on a lucrative jail medical contract after meeting with a state lawmaker who donated to Regalado’s campaign and runs a company seeking the contract, an investigation by The Frontier has found.
The state lawmaker, Rep. Jon Echols, says he asked the Sheriff’s Office to make the change in the bid requirements so his company could bid on the contract. Echols and two of his business partners at Turn Key Health Clinics, based in Oklahoma City, each contributed $1,000 to Regalado’s campaign for sheriff in April.
Though the county previously required bidders to have experience in jails housing at least 1,000 inmates, the change made by Regalado means companies holding contracts at jails half that size, at least 500 inmates, can now bid on the Tulsa Jail’s medical contract.
Regalado and the county’s purchasing director say lowering the requirement does not change the standards of care the new medical provider must meet. The sheriff declined an interview request by The Frontier and asked that all questions be submitted in writing.
“It had been my intention shortly after taking office to put out RFP on medical in order to ensure inmates in the care of TCSO were receiving the best medical care possible as well as to ensure fiscal responsibility,” Regalado said in a written response.
Regalado told The Frontier that “no one asked me to make that change” in bid requirements.
When asked about the discrepency, Echols said during his discussion about the contract with Regalado and TCSO’s financial advisor, Brad Johnson, the sheriff was “in and out of the room” and did not hear the entire discussion.
Still, Echols said the intent was clear, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with a new sheriff changing the terms of an important contract to allow an Oklahoma company to compete.
“I wanted a fair opportunity. … There’s no doubt that I asked that we be able to bid. Inherently that would include (changing the RFP to) the 500-bed limit,” Echols said.
County Purchasing Director Linda Dorrell said she opposed making the change requested by Regalado’s office.
“I had to talk them into the 500,” she said. “They didn’t think there should be a requirement on the size of jail and I said, ‘You’ve got to have one.’ I wanted to leave it at 1,000.”
County commissioners will open the bids on Aug. 15 with the new contract to begin Nov. 1.
Two members of the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority, which oversees the jail’s operations and budget, said they were unaware of the change in the county’s request for proposals, known as an RFP.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett said changing the bid requirements at the request of a prospective bidder “doesn’t pass the smell test.” As an authority member, Bartlett pressed for greater transparency over how jail tax money is spent.
Sand Springs Mayor Mike Burdge, also a member of the authority, said he was not aware that the RFP standards had been changed.
“That’s definitely an eye opener,” Burdge said.
However Echols said opening up the bidding process allows more companies, including Turn Key Health Clinics, to compete on a level playing field with large, out-of-state corporations that may deliver inferior service. The current contractor, Armor Correctional Services, is based in Florida.
He said his conversations with sheriffs including Regalado are a normal course of business for any company seeking a jail medical contract and not related to his and his partners’ campaign contributions or his status as a state lawmaker.
Turn Key has contracts with about 19 county jails in Oklahoma, the largest of which are in Grady and Cleveland counties.
“I am very proud of the job that we do,” Echols said. “I’m proud to be involved in the industry because I think we care. … I think part of the problem is that we don’t have enough vendors that are invested in the community.”
Turn Key Health Clinics is one of six companies planning to bid on Tulsa’s $5 million annual contract. Representatives of Turn Key and five other companies that oversee jail medical contracts showed up to a mandatory pre-bid conference Tuesday at the jail, 300 N. Denver Ave.
In addition to Turn Key, companies planning to bid on the contract are Southwest Correctional Medical Group, based in Texas; Correct Care Solutions, based in Tennessee; Advanced Correctional Health Care, based in Illinois; Correctional Health Partners, based in Colorado; and Florida-based Armor Correctional Health Care, the current medical provider.
Beginning in 2005, when the sheriff’s office took over the jail from a private operator, the county contracted with Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc. After widespread problems in medical care at the jail, including the 2011 death of inmate Elliott Williams, the sheriff’s office switched contractors, signing with Armor in 2013.
However, Armor has also been at the center of controversy, both locally and nationally, over inmate deaths and allegations of poor medical care.
On Tuesday, New York’s attorney general sued Armor, alleging the company “egregiously underperformed” its obligations to care for inmates in the Nassau County Correctional Center. Since Armor won that $11 million contract in 2011, at least 12 inmates have died in custody at the New York jail, including four since March.
Armor oversees medical care of inmates at the Oklahoma County jail, where officials have raised concerns over the deaths of nine inmates this year.
An attorney representing families of several inmates who have died in Tulsa’s jail said the new request for proposals represents “a significant step backwards” at a time when problems still exist at the jail.
“Lowering the standards in this manner only increases the substantial risks of harm that inmates at the Jail already face,” said Bob Blakemore, of the Smolen, Smolen & Roytman firm. The firm has filed a dozen lawsuits against the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office over deaths, alleged negligent medical care and sexual assaults of inmates in the jail.