By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
The state’s Legislative Contract Review Committee has momentarily halted a nearly $400 million contract with a prison health provider that is currently being charged with participating in one of, “the largest and longest-running criminal conspiracies, in the history of Mississippi,” according to the state’s attorney general.
Alabama selected Wexford Heath Sources, Inc., to provide healthcare services for its beleaguered prison system despite the company’s potential financial collapse under the weight of the impending lawsuit in Mississippi.
Wexford, a once thought low-bidder to offer court-ordered mental health care to state prisons is, in fact, $10 million higher than its competitor.
In a lawsuit filed by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, Wexford Heath Sources, Inc., along with others, “intentionally conspired to devise schemes using overt acts such as bribery, kickbacks, unfair and deceptive trade practices.” These are just a few of the allegations leveled against Wexford and a group that included the head of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections, Christopher B. Epp, who was imprisoned for his part in the alleged scheme.
In Mississippi, State Attorney General Hood charges that Wexford, along with then-commissioner Epps, Cecil McCrory and The Bantry Group Corporation, for seven years used, “misrepresentations, fraud, concealment, money laundering and other wrongful conduct, all with the intended purpose, and effect, of defrauding the State of approximately $294,000,000.”
McCrory, a former legislator, was accused of bribing Epps and hauling in millions from sweetheart contracts and consulting fees. He was sentenced to eight and a half years in federal prison for his part in the scam that now haunts Wexford.
Court filings claim, “In essence, the scheme worked like this: then-Commissioner Epps, McCrory, Wexford, and Bantry had a ‘backroom’ relationship or agreement. Wexford and Bantry paid McCrory so-called ‘consulting fees.’ McCrory then paid a portion of those fees as bribes and kickbacks to Epps.”
If the charges against Epps and McCrory somewhat mirror recent scandals here in Alabama, the similarities seem lost on public officials who approved the Wexford contract.
Last Thursday, the Legislative Contract Review Committee withheld approval of the Wexford agreement, citing concerns over the pending lawsuit in Mississippi.
As reported by the Alabama Political Reporter’s Chip Brownlee, “The issues over the contract come as the Senate Thursday approved a $30 million supplement to the Department of Corrections’ funding this fiscal year — an increase needed to comply with a recent court decision that mandated changes to medical and mental health care in Alabama’s prisons.”
Actions taken by Alabama’s Department of Corrections is a result of federal Judge Myron Thompson’s judgment that state-provided psychological healthcare services within the department of corrections were “horrendously inadequate.” Thompson’s ruling on prison mental health services is seen by many as an omen of what is coming when the judge decides on general medical care in correctional facilities.
As for the temporary hold-up, the state’s Department of Correction’s Commissioner Jeff Dunn said he hopes to resolve concerns raised by members of the committee. “We are pleased the committee is thoroughly reviewing this important contract that will provide the necessary healthcare services throughout the state’s prison system,” Dunn said in a statement to APR.
Dunn has often cited problems facing other companies that provide prison healthcare, but none are currently facing anything like Wexford’s legal challenges.
Contract Review can only postpone a ruling on Wexford as they are powerless to stop any contract presented for consideration. Often seen as a rubber-stamp, the review process is sometimes the last stop that allows cooler heads to re-evaluate specific troubling questions like the ones facing Wexford’s deal.