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Two counties in southeast Arkansas likely didn't follow the state's competitive bidding laws when their officials signed a contract with a private prison company from Louisiana in early 2018 to operate a proposed regional jail, according to records obtained from the attorney of one of the counties.

The agreement between Drew County, Bradley County and LaSalle Corrections to build a 600-bed jail in the Arkansas timberlands is part of a larger deal that involves the Arkansas Department of Corrections agreeing to house as many as 500 state inmates at the complex.

At a meeting last month, the Board of Corrections approved its own contract with the counties to house the inmates.

After state prison officials approved their end of the contract, County Judge Robert Akin of Drew County told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month that his county had yet to sign a formal agreement with LaSalle to build the jail.

However, a subsequent public records request by the newspaper for communications among county officials, LaSalle and the Department of Corrections turned up a contract signed by Akin and his counterpart in Bradley County in April 2018. The request also turned up an email written last month by the Drew County attorney explaining that the contract was likely null and void because it did not follow competitive bidding laws.

"It is my opinion that the previously approved contract between the Counties and LaSalle is invalid and unenforceable for want of competitive bidding," the attorney, C.C. "Cliff" Gibson, wrote in the September email that was obtained by the newspaper.

Under Arkansas Code Annotated 19-11-801, political subdivisions of the state, including counties, may waive competitive bidding for "professional services" by a two-thirds vote of their governing bodies. In the case of a county, the governing body is the quorum court.

Gibson said in his Sept. 27 email to Akin and Corrections Secretary Wendy Kelley that the jail contract fell under the law's "professional services" provision. As such, he said, the contract can only be enforced if a county quorum court votes to waive competitive bidding.

The Democrat-Gazette was unable to determine whether either county plans to hold a vote to waive bidding. The county judges of each county -- Akin in Drew County and Klay McKinney in Bradley County -- did not respond to numerous messages left at their offices last week.

In a statement Friday, LaSalle Executive Director Rodney Cooper said the company has "no intentions of enforcing this contract from 2018."

The Drew County Quorum Court will meet today with representatives from LaSalle, according to three justices of the peace.

Each justice of the peace said they saw potential benefits in the jail project, including tax dollars and jobs, though none could recall taking a formal vote on a contract. They said they were not sure what vote, if any, would be taken today.

"We're for this and can see the need for it," said Tommy Gray, a justice of the peace from Monticello. "But we haven't been advised on it very much."

LaSalle has been the top choice of Akin and other officials involved with the project since at least 2017, according to previous interviews. While no private prisons operate in Arkansas, the company has held about 300 state inmates from the Division of Correction at a jail in Texarkana, Texas, since 2013.

The Democrat-Gazette reported last month that LaSalle recently put in place new controls at the Bi-State Justice Center jail that it operates in Texarkana, after twice being cited by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for staff members failing to conduct routine cell checks. The company also has settled two lawsuits with the families of inmates who died at the jail in 2015 and 2016.

Both Akin and state Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage -- a supporter of the regional jail project -- have said previously that they visited a LaSalle-run jail in Jackson Parish, La., and were impressed with the facility.

LaSalle, however, is not the only company to express interest in the Arkansas project. Tiger Correctional Services, based in Jonesboro, was in talks with county officials for about a year, its owner said, before those discussions ended and officials turned to LaSalle.

When asked Friday whether he was aware the counties had already entered into a contract with LaSalle, Wardlaw said he believed that the quorum courts of both counties had voted on a "resolution," but he was unaware of a contract.

"I don't get involved in the county stuff," he said.

Both the counties and the Department of Corrections stand to earn significant savings by housing inmates at a private lockup.

Under the 2018 contract obtained by the Democrat-Gazette, the counties agreed to pay LaSalle $30 per inmate housed at the facility each day. The contract reserves a minimum number of beds for each county, which the counties must pay for even if they do not fill them with inmates. Under a separate deal, the state prison system agreed to pay $44 per day to house each prisoner from the state.

It costs both Drew County and the Department of Corrections about $61 per day to house prisoners at their own facilities, officials said. Bradley County, which doesn't have a jail, must pay to send its prisoners elsewhere.

Gibson, the Drew County attorney, said last week that the Quorum Court did vote on a resolution authorizing Akin to sign the contract with LaSalle on April 17, 2018. Less than three months later, in July 2018, Gibson sent an email to Wardlaw and Akin saying that he had determined that the contract did not comply with the competitive bidding requirements.

In his email to Kelley and Akin last month, Gibson wrote that the contract between the Department of Corrections and the counties in some instances conflicted with the existing contract between the counties and LaSalle.

Gibson suggested that any future contract between the counties and LaSalle include language specifying that in any instance in which the separate deals conflicted, the terms of the counties' contract with the state would supersede all other terms.

SundayMonday on 10/21/2019

Print Headline: Bidding laws at issue in counties' jail deal; contract likely invalid, attorney says

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