Friday, October 19, 2007

Texas jail commissary corruption may run deeper than anyone knew

Mid America Services, the Dallas-based company that allegedly bribed the Potter County Sheriff to receive jail commissary contracts, was also at the center of bribery accusations that let to the indictment but ultimate dismissal of similar charges against then-Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles in 2004. Reported the Dallas News, the

Dallas-based company [was] at the center of an earlier case – which has since been dropped – against former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles.

Sheriff Michael Shumate, 58, is accused of accepting bribes from Mid-America Services Inc., which handles food services at the Potter County Jail.

His attorney pointed to other investigations of his client in the past two years that resulted in no charges.

Sheriff Bowles was indicted in 2004 on a felony charge of misapplication of fiduciary property. He was accused of transferring more than $100,000 of campaign donations to personal checking and investment accounts.

Those charges grew out of a special prosecutor's investigation of former Mid-America Services Chairman Jack Madera and his dealings with Texas sheriffs and county officials.

A state district judge dismissed the charges against Sheriff Bowles in 2004, the same year that a felony indictment against Mr. Madera was thrown out. Mr. Madera died of cancer later that year.

Wednesday's indictment alleges that Sheriff Shumate engaged in organized criminal activity by taking illegal contributions from Mid-America. He did not report the contributions on his campaign finance reports as required by state law, according to a news release from the attorney general's office in Austin.

The same charge was leveled against Mid-America and its current president, Robert Austin Jr., who are accused of giving Mr. Shumate the money to retain the jail contract, District Attorney Randall Sims said.

Sounds to me like it's time to revive that special prosecutor's investigation against Mid America Services, which holds other jail commissary contracts around the state including in Tarrant County. The Bexar County Sheriff recently had to step down to avoid a commissary-related felony bribery rap involving a different company, Premier Management Enterprises, which also just lost its contract in Kleberg County over similar allegations. (Thankfully, commissaries in adult Texas prisons are operated by TDCJ.)

It's clear that Texas needs to perform a comprehensive investigation/audit of county jail commissary contracts statewide. The obvious entity to investigate would be Attorney General Greg Abbott. But that would anger a lot of local pols and generate entirely predictable blowback, so I'm not holding my breath for him to do that. Otherwise, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards lacks the staff and perhaps the expertise and authority. The State Auditor might be another agency that could investigate in greater detail. Or perhaps one of the legislative committees on criminal justice will include the subject in an interim study.

But since none of that is likely to happen anytime soon, for now I'd call on every local newspaper and media outlet in the state (including any ambitious bloggers) to talk to your local Sheriffs' Office. Find out if commissary services are contracted or performed in house, and if it's a contract, file open records requests for all the communications you can lay your hands on between the company and the department, particularly the Sheriff. Odds are, similar corruption is going on elsewhere that nobody has uncovered yet.

Here's more detail from the Attorney General's press packet regarding the Potter County indictments:

Media Links
Kenneth Farren indictment No.1
Kenneth Farren Indictment No. 2
Robert Austin engaging in organized criminal activity - bribery indictment
Mid-America Services engaging in organized criminal activity - bribery indictment
Michael Shumate engaging in organized criminal activity - bribery indictment
Michael Shumate accepting illegal contribution indictment No. 1
Michael Shumate accepting illegal contribution indictment No. 2


Anonymous said...

If I were you I don't think I'd be thankful for anything TDCJ does. Every unit has a commissary and vending machines in the visiting room. There are hundreds of locations where bribery and corruption can exist.

Government and Government Officials being what they are, I'm sure there is nothing to be grateful for.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I admire your cynicism, but what I meant was that jails where the local govt ran their own commissaries don't appear to be having these problems. It's where they take the Sheriff off on some golfing trip to Costa Rica and butter them up with cash and prizes to win contract bid where these problems have recurred.

That said, I admit the inflated prices make commissaries a potential source of corruption anywhere. I guess in this grim setting one looks for SOMETHING to be thankful for. :)

Anonymous said...

Corruption exists, but I am glad those prisoners have commissary. They would be wasting away to nothing without it. When visiting, it is very evident which prisoners have the option of getting a little more to eat.

Anonymous said...

I understand the sheriff was ratted out by uncorroborated snitch testimony.

You know regular criminals are usually set up by crocked DAs, while officials are usually guilty.

Anonymous said...

The thing about commisarry in Texas is, it's not the inmate's money that gets spent on it, it's their families' money. Inmates would have no money if their families didnt provide it, and thus, the system would have no means of making an extra dollar. The quality of commisarry items is poor (hubby can buy a pen, and have it only last for 6 or 7 sheets of paper) and prices on many (but not all) things are greatly inflated. But as families cannot send anything in to the inmates, we are all held hostage to the system.

Some enlightened states allow individuals to send care packages to their inmates 2 or 3 times a year. Other states allow individuals to make out a shopping list for items available from commisarry and pay for them, so that the inmate receives a care package that way. Texas just wants our money.

Vending machines at visitation are HUGELY expensive. I really was shocked to see the prices of things, and there are no healthy options either, just sugar and salt-laden rubbish. Vending machines can dispense any item at all, so why is there no fruit? Why no milk? Why no hot drinks? (sitting for 4 hours right under the AC vent, even in the summer, it gets cold!)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I wouldn't agree with that, 9:41, but you're entitled to your opinion.

Anonymous said...

This corruption begins at the youth prison first and move on to bigger jails with more money. I was working for TYC until May of this year. When I found where someone had used funds for illegal purchases. I demanded that this money be returned and when the money was returned I was asked to resign. Never ever would I recommend TYC for an honest person with ethics as a place to seek employment. I am thankful that I didn't waste any more of my time there. Thanks Robin McKeever for getting me out of TYC. You deserve all the hell that comes your way.