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St. Louis County won’t answer questions on jail contract because of ‘cone of silence’

St. Louis County won’t answer questions on jail contract because of ‘cone of silence’

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St. Louis County Justice Center

A holding area in the St. Louis County Justice Center is shown in this 2005 file photo.

CLAYTON — After a company that lost a lucrative contract at the St. Louis County Justice Center alleged irregularities in the bidding process, the County Council chairwoman said Tuesday she was doing “due diligence” to make sure the winner was selected properly.

Tim McAteer, president and general manager of Inmate Calling Solutions, or ICS, said in an interview on Tuesday that his firm was the real winner and should be awarded the contract. And he handed a six-page letter to council members on the dais to make his case.

McAteer told the council it wasn’t fair the county selected his competitor, Securus Technologies Inc., for its proposal to give inmates free tablets, because the county never sought tablets in its request for proposals. And he said his firm’s bid included a much lower cost to inmates per call.

But Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said in an interview after the council meting that she “didn’t have a lot of concerns” after talking with county employees involved in the contract. About ICS’s claim that it put in the lowest bid, Clancy said she was “concerned that allegation is misleading.” And she said the county’s request did not preclude a proposal for tablets.

Securus told the county it will provide free tablets to inmates that will enable email-like communication, photo exchanges, video chatting, law library access and educational classes. The tablets would not permit unfettered web access. Justice Services Director Raul Banasco has touted the tablets as a “game changer.”

On County Executive Sam Page’s recommendation, the council on Tuesday introduced a bill that would sign Securus. With no delays, the bill could get final council approval in two weeks.

In a Feb. 11 letter, a lawyer for ICS’s parent company, Alexander S.Y. Lee, told the council the county had previously said it was not interested in tablets.

Lee’s letter also pointed out that Page had touted Securus’ rate of under 5 cents per minute with no prepaid setup fees. He attached emails showing that ICS had given the county two choices: one that had a $3 fee for setting up a debit card and another with no setup fee for the card.

Even ICS’s bid with no prepaid setup fees came with a much lower per-minute rate than Securus, he noted, but the emails suggest that a county procurement officer said she was only interested in the option that included setup fees.

If the county had properly scored the bid, Lee wrote, ICS almost certainly would have won.

Earlier in the day, the county wouldn’t answer questions raised by ICS about the deal. Page’s spokesman, Doug Moore, said he was prohibited from discussing it because of a new policy that the county enter contracts under a “cone of silence.”

The “cone of silence” legislation, proposed last year by Page, was adopted by the County Council in a 7-0 vote on Oct. 8 as a way to safeguard the integrity and transparency of the county procurement and contracting process.

The legislation bans vendors or their representatives from contacting county officials during a competitive bidding process for government contracts. It was a response by county officials to revelations that Page’s predecessor, Steve Stenger, and others in Stenger’s administration conspired to steer contracts to Stenger’s campaign donors, and that Stenger threatened employees who did not go along with his schemes.

The Post-Dispatch asked the county to respond to the claim, for details about how tablets became part of the scope of work for the contract, and for copies of the scoring sheets used in the bid process.

Moore said the “cone of silence” ordinance meant he could not talk about it.

Securus said in a statement that it was “excited for the opportunity to support St. Louis County with a comprehensive offering that includes consumer phone rates below a nickel — the lowest in the area — as well as additional services at no cost to taxpayers including an easily accessible law library resource, educational offerings, job search tools and communication applications; all of which are vital to successful reentry.”

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