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VitaPro Fraud Scheme Unveiled in Texas

Texas state prison officials have asked a judge to nullify an agreement to purchase $33.6 million worth of VitaPro, a soy-based food product, saying the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) had no authority to sign such a contract. Under the deal between the TDCJ and VitaPro Foods, Inc., a Canadian company that makes the soy bean substitute meat and chicken, the TDCJ was to purchase 36 metric tons of the product each month for five years. Investigators for Gov. George W. Bush said the arrangement between VitaPro and the TDCJ involved "fancy footwork" and was clearly not above board.

The FBI, Texas Rangers and internal prison investigators are probing the pact, including the involvement of former TDCJ executive director James A. "Andy" Collins, who urged the agency to buy the powdery product and is now earning $1,000 each day he works as a VitaPro consultant.

Also under investigation is Larry Kyle, the director of prison industries who signed the purchase agreement with VitaPro under what he termed as a gentleman's agreement when the pact was signed last year [See: "TDCJ Selling Counterfeit Meat" in the July '95 issue of PLN]. Kyle was placed on administrative leave (with full pay) pending the outcome of the investigation.

Prison officials initially claimed they could save millions of dollars a year by not buying beef or chicken to feed prisoners. They also hoped to earn an additional $4 million a year by reselling the product to other prisons and jails across the country.

Those sales never materialized, though, and Texas prisoners have balked at eating the product, claiming it causes diarrhea, skin rashes and other ailments. As a result, tons of the product are piling up in prison warehouses around the state and the state is currently defending against several pro se lawsuits from prisoners claiming health problems related to eating the chemical and preservative-laced product.

The investigation into the VitaPro deal was sparked in January when Patrick Graham, a Houston developer, was arrested for plotting a foiled prison escape in which he convinced a convict's family that he had close enough ties with Collins to get the prisoner transferred to a trusty work detail where it would have been easy to arrange the escape. [See: "TX Prison Developer Arrested in Escape Plot" in this issue of PLN].

Collins resigned as executive director of the TDCJ last fall after investigators linked him with a fraudulent scheme to finance several rent-a-cell jails in small Texas municipalities. Just prior to resigning, Collins approved a promotion for Kyle which raised his salary to $75,744. TDCJ spokesperson Glen Castlebury said that only one other TDCJ employee had been promoted to that level, and that individual, Art Mosley, was already a deputy director.

Castlebury also said the TDCJ stopped taking delivery of any more VitaPro shipments in late February. In its request to nullify the contract the state asked judge Bill McAdams not only to throw out the pact but also to order VitaPro to refund the estimated $3 million the state has paid to date.

The ongoing soap opera of official fraud and corruption in the TDCJ speaks volumes for a topsy-turvy criminal justice system wherein tens of thousands of petty thieves and drug users are being imprisoned in a system operated by multi-million dollar thieves. When a poor person robs a convenience store of $50, that is characterized as a violent crime. When senior TDCJ officials bilk the taxpayers for millions of dollars, those actions are characterized as "fancy footwork" or "shady business deals."

Source: Houston Chronicle

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