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Kickbacks Dominate Fresno Jail Contracts

Close scrutiny is being given to the
Sheriff's Foundation for Public Safety and its leader, Fresno County Sheriff Richard Pierce. Many large donations received by the organization come from companies that have contracts with Fresno County. Pierce and eight other high-ranking sheriffs have influence over who is awarded these contracts.

Canteen of Fresno contracts with Fresno County to supply various commissary items to county prisoners. Gross sales for Canteen have netted between $1.2 and $1.6 million annually over the last five years. Canteen also contributed a hefty $50,000 to the Sheriff's Foundation.

Aramark was awarded a $3.9 million contract to provide meals for 2,900 prisoners in the Fresno jail. They also gave $6,500 to the foundation. T-Netics provides the prisoner phone service for the jail. Their donation to the foundation was $2,500.

What's troubling is the fact that this cadre of sheriffs actively and enthusiastically solicit these contributions from contracted companies. Richard Kriegbaum, the former president of Fresno Pacific University, with 25 years experience as a consultant to the governing boards of various non-profit organizations, says that the current practice of the Fresno Sheriff's Foundation has "the appearence of evil. It could feel like law enforcement is asking for protection money or they are expecting a gift out of the company in some unspoken quid pro quo for a contract."

Kriegbaum also notes the atypical composition of the foundation's board, nine sheriff's captains and two lieutenants, might adversely affect the board's objectivity. As a rule charitable foundations use solicitors not affiliated with the supporting institution.

Bob Stern, who presides over the Center of Governmental Studies (CGS) in Los Angeles, agrees with Kriegbaum's assessment. CGS is a non-profit organization that researches ethical practices and campaign funding across the nation.

"I certainly question the ethics of soliciting money from a company that is doing business with the department," says Stern. "It puts pressure on the company to contribute. They will be afraid that they might lose the contract if they didn't. They want to be on the good side of the sheriff obviously." Stern went on to say that in spite of obvious pressure most donating companies will deny feeling intimidated by requests to donate.

Daniel E. Jameson, senior vice president of Aramark, says he felt no pressure at all to contribute to the Fresno Foundation.

"Well how else would they raise money if they didn't ask people?" he said.

Hugh M. Wilson III, president of Canteen, says his company contributes to the foundation "voluntarily and enthusiastically." He denies any "implication" of pressure or coercion. Wilson calls the donations a way "to efficiently give back to the community."

Naturally, Sheriff Pierce denies any external pressure exists. "If Canteen or Aramark or anyone who does business with us says, `Well, we've decided we're no longer going to give [to the foundation],'OK. That's their decision. That has nothing to do with our business relationship," says Pierce.

Pierce also defend's the foundation's method of doing business. "We do business eyeball to eyeball. We're looking at the people. They can see who we are.... I believe that's the way you do business." He also says that foundation business is never mentioned during contract discussions. "I know we're doing the right thing with this," he insists.

Appearances aside, it is unlikely that the goodwill donations will stop anytime soon. In fact, the bond between Pierce and Canteen is so close that on more than one occasion the company has contributed to Pierce's reelection campaign fund.

In 1994, Canteen beat out two other bidders to secure the Fresno contract. When Pierce successfully ran for sheriff in 1998 Canteen contributed $2,500 toward his campaign. Pierce took office in 1999 and Canteen renewed its contract unopposed the same year. The renewal was based on the recommendation of Pierce and a county purchasing committee.

Pierce insists that he realizes no personal gain from the foundation. However, Sierra Summit ski resort donated $3,750 to Pierce's campaign and $5,000 to the foundation. Also, Cal West Packing Co. contributed $500 to Pierce's campaign and $250 to the foundation. For his own part Pierce denies soliciting any funds for the foundation.

Elsewhere in the state, Jeffrey Reynolds is suing Canteen Corrections for injuries he sustained as a Kerns County jail guard. Reynolds accuses the food service company of providing prisoners with the fruit and snacks used to make jailhouse liquor. Reynolds was hit with a stool, a lunch tray, and kicked in the ribs during a drunken brawl which he claims ended his corrections career. g

Sources: The Fresno Bee, The Californian

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