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VitaPro Update

Over the past year PLN has published several articles about events revolving around a $33.7 million contract between the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and Canadian-based VitaPro Foods, Inc. Since our last report, several developments have come to light.

The Austin American-Statesman reported that Montreal businessman Yank Barr who owns the VitaPro company, is an ex-convict, having served time in a Canadian prison for (of all things) extortion and conspiracy. "It's another bizarre chapter in an already seedy story," said Allen Polunsky, Texas Board of Criminal Justice chairman.

Polunsky's predecessor, Andy Collins, resigned under a cloud of suspicion after several of his shady business deals came under scrutiny. After Collins resigned he accepted a $1,000-a-day job as a VitaPro consultant. A Collins business associate, Patrick Graham, arrested in a bizarre escape-for-hire plot, helped broker a deal with Louisiana state prison officials for the purchase of 20 tons of VitaPro. That contract is now under scrutiny.

The use of VitaPro in Louisiana prisons received a poor review from prison officials and prisoners, many of whom complained of a bad taste. About 17 tons of the 20-ton purchase now sits in Louisiana state warehouses. According to Warden Burl Cain of the La. State Penitentiary at Angola, VitaPro is now being served mostly to prisoners on special diets.

Associated Press reports that Louisiana prison official paid $164,331 for 20 tons of VitaPro. Considering that the product is supposed to be a cost-effective meat substitute, it's quite interesting to note that a 20-ton purchase of the product sold for $4.10 a pound. Gregory Canton, owner of Lumen Foods, says his company offered to sell a textured vegetable protein substitute product to the state of Louisiana for over a dollar a pound cheaper than VitaPro, but was not awarded the contract.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, state auditors pored over TDCJ contracts after public disclosure of several deals in which state officials awarded contracts without competitive bidding, including the $33.7 million VitaPro contract and a $9.2 million high-tech security fencing contract. Board members have also been criticized for inquiring about state contracts on behalf of friends and associates.

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice hired Susan Stone, a psychiatrist and attorney, to serve as an ethics consultant. Polunsky said it was time to change the culture of the beleaguered agency.

Dr. Stone has recommended that all 40,000 TDCJ employees participate in an ethics training program. The program will involve video training presentation and a handbook on state ethics laws, a new ethics advisory council and tighter rules. "In light of what has occurred, it's very important that we restore the public's confidence in the department," Polunsky said, "and this is an important step in doing that."

Dr. Stone said the cost of the program is not known yet because the video and other elements of the program could be implemented using existing agency resources. Dr. Stone, who is working half-time for the criminal justice agency, is being paid $50,000 annually for her ethics work, state officials said. None of the news reports PLN reviewed for this article mention whether or not Dr. Stone's services were competitively bid.

Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman, Corrections Digest

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