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Tennessee Prison Contracting Official Engaged to Contractor

The Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) is investigating whether a romance between a prison contract oversight official and a prison contractor involved any impropriety.

TDOC purchasing director Nola Butler disclosed her romantic relationship with prison commissary contractor Martin Jennen, president of American Commissary Supply-US, to TDOC Assistant Commissioner Catherine Posey in August or September 2005. Posey told then-Acting TDOC Commissioner Gayle Ray.

Despite the revelation about a possible conflict of interest, Jennen?s company was awarded a contract to provide the TDOC?s prison commissaries with, among other items, peanut butter, tuna fish and toothpaste. Butler was not directly involved in awarding the contract, which was done by the General Services Department (GSD). However, Butler was TDOC?s liaison to GSD and had oversight responsibilities over the contract. GSD was not informed of the relationship.

A Tennessee newspaper learned of the relationship and made an inquiry. Six days later, on July 31, 2006, the TDOC?s contract with American Commissary Supply-US was cancelled. GSD spokeswoman Lola Potter stated that the contract was terminated due to TDOC officials? complaints regarding poor performance by the company. She said that a March 20, 2006 warning letter indicated that the termination process was initiated prior to the newspaper?s inquiry.

The TDOC investigation was sparked by the newspaper?s inquiry. TDOC Commissioner George Little said he learned about the relationship in February 2006, after taking office in October 2005. He said he initiated a search for a new purchasing director in May 2006 and was close to naming one close to the end of August.

Little said Butler would be transferred to another position until she retired following her replacement. He emphasized that the TDOC?s investigation had found no indication of impropriety and he was replacing Butler to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Little also stressed that there was no state law or policy prohibiting contract administrators from having romantic relationships with contractors.

That this relationship created problems should be a ?no-brainer? according to Megan Barry, a member of the Metro Ethics Commission and a professional corporate ethicist. Butler should have been removed from involvement in the contract as soon as she revealed the relationship.
?State government around here still amazes me with how it operates toward conflicts of interest,? said Barry. ?People just don?t get it.?

Jennen blamed cash flow problems and his March 16, 2006 divorce for his company?s problems in fulfilling the TDOC contract. According to Jennen, he and Butler are now engaged but have not set a wedding date.

Source: The Tennessean.

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