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.
Taxpayers would pick up the tab (usually in the form of higher property taxes) for any legal fees and judgments arising from the civil rights lawsuits, all pending in the Northern District of federal court. Attorney Clark Brewster represents the county in the suits.
Earlier this year, a jury found the sheriff’s office was “deliberately indifferent” to the civil rights of one inmate, LaDona Poore, who sued over sexual assaults by a detention officer that occurred when she was a teenager held in the jail.
Purchasing director opposed request
The David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center currently has 1,714 beds but will expand to 1,979 beds in December when four new housing units are expected to open. That means operators with experience in jails with 500 inmates could be overseeing medical care at a facility more than three times that size, if they win the contract.
The companies vying for the $5 million annual contract are essentially staffing companies that agree to hire administrators, a doctor, nurses and nurse aides to staff the jail’s infirmary and decide what level of medical care inmates receive. Armor’s 2013 contract requires it to provide about 40 full-time medical employees, including one doctor who serves as medical director and a psychiatrist or psychologist.
The county’s most recent RFP required bidders to have experience in jails with at least 1,000 inmates. Before that, the 2005 RFP asked bidders to submit references from jails similar in size to Tulsa’s jail.
Echols said after Regalado won last month’s primary election, he met with the new sheriff and his financial advisor to discuss the jail’s medical contract.
When asked by The Frontier about the change in the RFP, Echols initially said he asked Regalado to reduce the jail population requirement so Oklahoma companies including his own could bid on the contract. He later said he wasn’t sure of the specific words he used or if the sheriff even heard them.
Among the six companies planning to bid, Turn Key is the only Oklahoma-based company.
In an email, Dorrell said while she opposed the change, “they will be required to meet all the standards and accreditations we have already been requiring.”
“I was very careful to be sure that all those requirements were in the RFP before it went before the BOCC (Board of County Commissioners) for advertising. “
Echols, a Republican lawmaker whose district covers parts of Oklahoma City and Cleveland County, said he believes the previous 1,000-bed requirement was too limiting. He said he discussed the contract with Regalado, along with other ideas about how to improve medical care in the jail.
“I would argue that the 1,000 beds (requirement) is absurd. It is guaranteeing that you will have an out of state company that doesn’t have any ties to the community,” Echols said.
Records show Echols and two business partners who own Turn Key — Trent Smith and Jesse White — each contributed $1,000 to Regalado’s primary campaign for sheriff on April 5.
Records show Echols also donated $1,500 to the campaigns of two of Regalado’s challengers, Luke Sherman and John Fitzpatrick. Records don’t list the names of his two business partners as donating to those campaign funds, as they did to Regalado’s.
Regalado’s reports do not list any other contributors who disclose ownership or employment in companies bidding on the medical contract. Sources said Regalado’s office has held meetings with other prospective bidders for the contract.
Business owners who vie for public contracts in Oklahoma often give to candidates as a cost of doing business and there’s nothing improper about such donations if reported as required. Echols said campaign donations from he and his partners had nothing to do with his discussion about changing the RFP or his company’s bid to win the contract.
“I donated to Vic, I donated to Luke, and I donated to (John) Fitzpatrick. I thought they were all good candidates. I met with each of them face to face,” Echols said.
Regalado was elected during a special election April 11 to fill the remainder of former Sheriff Stanley Glanz’s term. (Glanz was indicted after a grand jury investigation and is expected to appear at a court hearing in the case Friday.)
Regalado handily won the GOP primary for a full term on June 28, defeating Sherman and another GOP challenger. He faces Democrat Rex Berry, whom he also defeated in the special election, during the general election in November.
Echols said he met with the new sheriff and his financial advisor after last month’s election. During the conversation, Echols brought up the medical contract’s requirement that companies have experience operating in a jail with at least 1,000 inmates.
“I was actually being cut out from my two largest counties in my state,” he said.
In addition to county jails in Oklahoma, Echols’ company oversees medical care in four jails in Arkansas and one in Kansas.
Echols also has ownership in a medical staffing company, Sooner Medical Staffing, which he said employs about 1,000 people with medical experience. He said he has also hired a physician and nurse who worked at the Department of Corrections. They would bring many years of experience to the job in Tulsa if Turn Key is selected, he said.
Flint Junod, Armor’s former regional vice president, is the chief operating officer of Turn Key. Echols said Junod’s experience with Armor included overseeing medical care in the Tulsa and Oklahoma County jails.
Dorrell said as long as she can remember, Tulsa County has required companies bidding on the contract to have experience in a jail about the same size to ensure the company can do the job.
“The sheriff felt like if we hold them to the same standards … then if we reduced it to a jail of 500, that he felt comfortable with that.”
She said Regalado wanted more participation in the bidding process. However that goal wasn’t achieved: When the county sought RFPs for the medical contract in 2013, seven vendors submitted proposals versus six companies currently planning to bid.
Dorrell said that may be due to consolidation in the marketplace since 2013.
In his statement, Regalado said the contracting process “is a fully vetted process that will involve representation from the medical and mental health professions.”
The RFP includes no additional staffing for the mental health pods, funded through a new sales tax. The new beds could bring dozens or even hundreds of new inmates into the jail with pre-existing mental illnesses.
Regalado said the staffing issue will be dealt with later.
“There will be an addendum added and staffing will be discussed with medical provider,” his statement says.
Blakemore, on behalf of families whose relatives have died in the jail, said changing the RFP to allow smaller companies to bid “is sending an ominous message.”
“Lowering the standards in this manner only increases the substantial risks of harm
that inmates at the jail already face. Over the past decade, there has been a string of
deaths and serious injuries attributable to the jail’s unconstitutional healthcare
“Most starkly, in 2011, Elliott Williams died naked and alone in a
video monitored cell after enduring days of reckless and callous indifference to his
basic and obvious needs.”
A suit over Williams’ death is pending in federal court and the sheriff’s office has denied it was deliberately indifferent to Williams’ civil rights. However in her own deposition, then-Chief Deputy Michelle Robinette said Williams’ treatment showed a “lack of human decency.”