Bar Food Fight
‘There’s just too much room for corruption in this process.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The complaints about jail grub this time aren’t coming from the inmates.
By BETTY BRINK
“I’ve been in this industry a long time. ... There’s nothing wrong with [a vendor] having a friendly relationship with those he does business with. ... What is wrong is when that relationship leads down the road to impropriety. In my opinion, Mr. Madera has a relationship with many county officials [in North Texas] that ... crosses that line of impropriety.”
John Sammons, owner of Mid-States Services, the company that recently lost bids to run the Tarrant and Dallas County jail commissaries for the next five years, was speaking of the winning bidder and former Mid-States consultant, Jack Madera, a man Sammons has accused of playing fast and loose with ethics and money to beat out his old boss as the vendor of choice in county jails for everything from toothpaste to grits.
The Dallas Morning News on Sept. 21 aired allegations about lavish spending by Madera on public officials. The story focused mostly on Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles. But the paper also reported that Tarrant County Commissioner J. D. Johnson was treated by Madera to 19 meals totaling $2,559 during that period, at places such as Cattlemen’s Steak House and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle. Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson and District Clerk Tom Wilder were along for “several of the most expensive meals,” the News reported.
The article alleged that Johnson had received other amenities from Madera, including parking and campaign contributions. Sammons denied to Fort Worth Weekly that he was the one who gave the expense reports to the News. However, he did not dispute the accuracy of what the News wrote about the records.
Neither Madera nor Johnson returned the Weekly’s calls for this story. But both Anderson and Wilder, in separate interviews, said reports of expensive meals allegedly bought for them by Madera were wildly off target. “I’ve been to Del Frisco’s once in my life and that was with my wife on our anniversary. ... I dropped $250 on a lobster and a couple of steaks. I was never there with Jack Madera,” Wilder said.
That’s not the only controversy swirling around this contract. Sammons is alleging that the bidding process itself may have been manipulated to favor Madera, and that the amount of his bid may have been known to Madera before Madera submitted his own final bid.
The sheriff and Wilder both said that they’ve known Madera for years and have gone to lunch with him on rare occasions. But the two officials said they had never been to a meal with Madera and Johnson, as the News reported, and certainly not at the high-dollar restaurants listed on Madera’s expense accounts.
“I certainly think I would have remembered eating at Del Frisco’s,” Anderson laughed. Both men said they had probably eaten with him at the Cattlemen’s — but neither remembered who picked up the tab.
Making the story even more complicated is the fact that Madera is the former owner of Mid-States, which he sold to Sammons in 1999 in a deal that gave Madera a big cash payout, Sammons said. The deal also gave Madera a three-year consulting contract under which he was to service his old contracts and help Sammons win renewals when the contracts came up again for bid. Sammons got a three-year non-compete clause from Madera, some lucrative North Texas county jail contracts — including Dallas and Tarrant — and “a good-faith promise,” Sammons said, that Madera was never going back in the vending business. “We didn’t look for him to use our money to wine and dine his old clients, with the hidden purpose of winning those clients back for himself,” Sammons said in a recent interview.
But in fact, Madera was back in business within weeks of the end of the non-compete clause with a new company, Mid-America Services, and he was winning back his old contracts. He won the Dallas jail commissary contract even though Sammons’ company submitted a bid that would have brought in almost a half-million dollars more to that county’s coffers than the Mid-America bid. The News story reported that during the time Madera worked for Sammons, his expense account reports show that he had spent thousands of dollars on Bowles, the Dallas County sheriff, for meals, airfare, deep-sea fishing trips, and hotel rooms.
At the end of this month, Sammons and Madera will go head to head again, along with three other vendors, for the Tarrant County contract that will give one of them the job of providing upward of 10,000 meals a day to the county’s jail inmates for the next five years, Anderson said.
The two contracts — jail food service and jail commissary — are separate because they come from different pots of money, Anderson said. The commissary, the jail “store” from which inmates can buy snacks, toothpaste, and other items, pays for itself. The jail meal service for inmates is paid for by the taxpayers, and that service, was privatized years ago, Anderson said.
Sammons, convinced he was beaten unfairly on the Dallas and Tarrant commissary contracts, has taken the battle-of-the-bids public. In doing so has raised questions about the long-term political and personal connections between Madera and Tarrant County officials such as Johnson and Anderson — both of whom played key roles in the commissary award — as well as Wilder. (The district clerk doesn’t vote on such issues but is considered a powerful behind-the-scenes player in courthouse politics.)
“Some elected officials have forgotten that their office is a public trust, and that the money they spend is the taxpayers’, not their own private fund,” Sammons said.
Given the high-stakes nature of the competition, Anderson said, “I’m not surprised at these accusations.”
Regardless of the controversy in Dallas, Anderson, who made the initial decision to award the Tarrant jail commissary contract to Madera, said that Madera won here on the merits. “He submitted the best bid, one that guarantees the best return for the county.” Under Mid-America, the county will get 27.5 percent of the annual sales or $750,000, whichever is higher. The contract was also approved by the commissioners under a special law passed by the legislature two years ago exclusively for Tarrant County. The law says that commissioners must approve any contract awarded by the sheriff for the commissary and then OK all expenditures. (This was done after the embarrassing eight-year run of Sheriff David Williams, who took the commissary money and converted it into his own special fund for promoting his version of evangelical Christianity. About $350,000 of that money has never been accounted for.)
Income to the county under Mid-America, Wilder said, will be about 10 times greater than the county received from sales last year from Mid-States Services. “The county and the taxpayers are being well-served by this package,” he said, “and it wasn’t bought with some meals in a few expensive restaurants, as the [News] story implies. ... The bidding was open and Jack submitted the best package. He beat the competition. It was that simple.”
But Sammons said it was far from simple. When the bids were opened, Sammons and Anderson both said, out of five bidders, Sammons had the best offer: a $650,000 minimum for the county or 25 percent of sales. Madera was second with a bid of $415,000 and 18 percent. But, contrary to usual bidding procedures, that wasn’t the end. The two top bidders were then told to come back with “refined bids,” Anderson said, to see if the county could get an even better deal.
When the second round of bidding was over, Madera had won with a jump of $335,000 over his original bid.
Because Sammons’ bid was opened two days before Madera’s, Sammons said. “There was plenty of time for my bid to be leaked,”’ noting the closeness of the two bids after they had originally been several hundred thousand dollars apart.
No way, Anderson said. “I was on the [three-member] committee that opened the second round of bids, and Mr. Sammons’ bid was read and then locked up until we opened Mr. Madera’s. If there were any leaks, they came from someone in his office, not in mine.” Anderson said the bids were opened at different times because Sammons was going to be out of town when the deadline arrived, “and I wanted him to be available in case we had some questions.”
Sammons said the jail contract ought to be treated like any others involving public money. “We submit our sealed bids and they are all opened at the same time. The best bid then wins the contract. There’s just too much room for corruption in this process,” he said. Anderson rejected the idea. “There’s no room for corruption here,” he said. “I am a friend of both Mr. Sammons and Mr. Madera, have been out to dinner and lunch with both, but that friendship has nothing to do with who gets the contracts. There are too many checks and balances now.”
Asked how their names wound up on Madera’s expense accounts for dinners they say never happened, both Anderson and Wilder said it was probably Madera’s sloppy bookkeeping. “Maybe he didn’t write down names on his receipts at the time he took someone out and then just made some guesses at the end of the month,” Anderson said. Wilder thinks it could have been “some secretary’s fault, who didn’t remember the names he gave her.”
While such answers might exonerate an old friend, they raise other questions about the fiduciary prudence of a man in charge of what could easily become a million dollar business within the public jail.
No problem Anderson said. “He’ll be watched by the county auditors. There’s no way,” he said, “that he’ll be able to feather his own nest.”
“Just watch him,” Sammons said.
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