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“I CAN Learn” Software Procurement for Kentucky DOC Questioned

“I CAN Learn” Software Procurement for Kentucky DOC Questioned

by Matt Clarke

The “I CAN Learn” educational software produced by New Orleans-based JRL Enterprises, which was adopted by the Kentucky Department of Corrections (KDOC), is under scrutiny for ineffectiveness and questionable procurement practices.

In 2004, then-KDOC Commissioner John Rees was introduced to “I CAN Learn” by his friend and JRL lobbyist Mark Smith. JRL had hired Smith to hawk the program in Washington, D.C. He had been friends with Rees since the 1990’s, when they both worked for private security companies (Rees was formerly employed by Corrections Corporation of America).

Rees recommended the purchase of the “I CAN Learn” remedial math program at a cost of $210,000 over five years. The money came from the Kentucky Centralized Inmate Commissary Inc., a semi-private fund known as the canteen board which is funded by profits from prison vending machines.

The procurement was unusual because it was authorized by the Commissioner’s office – bypassing the usual procurement process – and was funded through the semi-private canteen board fund, which is not subject to oversight by the legislature’s Contract Review Committee. The Committee reviews all state contracts with a value in excess of $1,000.
“Even though it’s private money, if it’s serving a state function, doesn’t that make it nonetheless something that should be reviewed?” asked state Rep. Brent Yonts.

Furthermore, the KDOC already had a $5.8 million contract with Kentucky’s community college system to provide prisoners with education programs ranging from GED classes to A.A. degrees, which meant the “I CAN Learn” software purchase was redundant.

“I CAN Learn” has a history of using lobbyists to influence government officials instead of going through normal procurement channels. In 2006, Kentucky legislators bought the software program for three middle schools after “I CAN Learn” lobbyist Hunter Bates, a former chief of staff for state Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, approached state lawmakers in the waning days of budget negotiations. The $1.3 million purchase was made despite a lack of evidence that the program was effective. Bates and two other lobbyists were paid $106,000 over two years for pushing “I CAN Learn,” according to filings with the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Committee.

JRL’s “I CAN Learn” program began with federal earmark money, which was arranged in large part by former U.S. Senator Bob Livingston, who later became a JRL lobbyist. In return, the company and its founder, John R. Lee, have made generous contributions to both political parties at the state and federal levels. The money still flows in both directions. JRL has received federal earmarks totaling $37 million since 2000, and has expanded sales of “I CAN Learn” into 28 states.

In 2007, former Orleans Parish School Board president Ellenese Brooks-Simms pleaded guilty to receiving up to $140,000 in kickbacks from third-party vendor Mose Jefferson to purchase “I CAN Learn” for New Orleans public schools. In turn, Jefferson received $913,000 in commissions from JRL. The company has denied any knowledge of the alleged bribery, and said it cut ties with Mose as soon as it learned of the scandal.

On April 2, 2008, Mose was indicted on charges of bribing Brooks-Simms to obtain $14 million in contracts for “I CAN Learn” software. Mose’s brother, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who has been a supporter of “I CAN Learn,” reportedly arranged some of the federal funds earmarked for JRL Enterprises. Rep. Jefferson was indicted on unrelated corruption charges in June 2007.

The KDOC’s only measure of the “I CAN Learn” program’s effectiveness is the company’s own laudatory claims. The program was suspended in Fort Worth, Texas public schools in 2005 after a study found it had little effect on students’ test scores. It was discovered that many of the positive reviews of the program were authored by an educator who was on JRL Enterprises’ payroll.

If “I CAN Learn” is indeed effective, it should be able to withstand the scrutiny of the normal procurement process. Since it bypassed that process when purchased by the KDOC, state officials should be reluctant to believe the company’s claims regarding the effectiveness of their product.

Source: Lexington Herald-Leader, Times-Picayune

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