After questions over jail contract, sheriff launches study

Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael
Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael

Seeking to answer questions about a large, no-bid jail maintenance contract, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael says he has asked his staff to take a comprehensive look at how other offices maintain their jails.

Carmichael was responding to a recent Charlotte Observer story, which reported that a subsidiary of The Keith Corp. has received about $7 million annually from a no-bid contract to maintain the county’s jails.

The Charlotte company and its executives have in recent years given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and consulting fees to Jim Pendergraph, a former Mecklenburg sheriff who approved the local contract in 1996.

Both Pendergraph and officials with The Keith Corp. say the consulting fees and campaign contributions had nothing to do with the contract.

Carmichael and former sheriffs say the decision to hire the company now known as TKC Management Services served taxpayers well, dramatically improving maintenance.

The basic standard for government is ... you should always put it out to bid.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James

But some experts have questioned the decision to award the contract without competitive bidding. Seeking bids from competing companies helps ensure that the public gets the best possible deal, experts say.

Three county commissioners interviewed Friday – George Dunlap, Bill James and Pat Cotham – said they think the sheriff’s office would be wise to put the contract out to bid, assuming other companies are equipped to do the job.

“The basic standard for government is, if there are multiple competent bidders, you should always put it out to bid,” said James, a Republican.

The commissioners have no authority over the sheriff, an elected official who has the ultimate say over how the jails are run.

“But I’d encourage the sheriff to be transparent,” said Cotham, a Democrat. “I’d encourage him to put it out to bid. There are a lot of contractors who could do that work. Let’s give them a shot.”

The ‘cleanest’ jails

In a letter emailed to commissioners earlier this week, Carmichael said he recommends “a more strategic approach than just canceling the contract.”

He said he’s asking his staff to conduct a “comprehensive survey” of all N.C. counties – as well as large counties outside the state – to learn about jail maintenance programs elsewhere. The survey will request information about the costs and level of service, among other things.

Carmichael said he is also asking his staff to contact other companies noted in the Observer’s article to determine whether those vendors “are currently providing services and to what extent.”

Pendergraph said his office didn’t think it was necessary to put the contract out to bid because it wasn’t aware of other companies that could provide the needed maintenance.

The Observer reported that other large companies have done jail maintenance work.

But Carmichael said that before hiring a new contractor, the sheriff’s office would need to be sure the company could deliver the same service. An inferior contractor could cause the jails to lose federal funding, or their accreditation from the American Correctional Association, Carmichael said.

They’re doing a great job for us now.

Mecklenburg sheriff Irwin Carmichael, speaking about the jail maintenance done by TKC Management Services

“Our facilities are frequently noted as the cleanest and most well maintained detention facilities our visitors have ever visited,” Carmichael said in his letter to commissioners. “That standard has been established and will not be compromised.”

FBI agents have been asking questions about other contracts awarded to TKC for maintenance at three state prisons, which were renewed over the objections of top state prison officials.

According to a state Department of Public Safety memo, Graeme Keith Sr., The Keith Corp.’s chairman, told state officials he had given a lot of money to political candidates and it was “now time for him to get something in return.” Keith has called that memo a “gross misrepresentation.”

A story published in October by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer showed how Gov. Pat McCrory – one of the politicians who benefited from Keith’s contributions – personally intervened on the company’s behalf.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

Related stories from Charlotte Observer