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Florida Sheriff Sued for Awarding No-Bid Health Care Contract, Receiving Gifts

Florida Sheriff Sued for Awarding No-Bid ?Health Care Contract, Receiving Gifts

Prison Health Services (PHS) has sued the sheriff of Sarasota County, Florida for awarding the jail’s health care contract to rival Armor Correctional Health Services without taking competitive bids. The lawsuit also alleges that Sheriff Bill Balkwill received gifts from Armor in the time period leading up to the no-bid contract award.

One of those gifts had a specific correlation to the contract negotiations. Doyle Moore, Armor’s chief executive officer, took Sheriff Balkwill on a fishing trip on Lake Okeechobee. He rented two boats with guides and plenty of bait. Balkwill caught a one-and-a-half pound bass, and Moore footed the $748 bill with a credit card.

When Balkwill returned to his office the following Monday he e-mailed Moore, stating, “Had a great time! Give a call when you’re ready to talk about the contract and what you can do.” Between 2006 and 2007, Armor also treated Balkwill to hundreds of dollars in meals and other perks, according to records discovered by PHS lawyers. Moore is no longer an Armor executive; he stepped down after it was revealed that he had a criminal record for tax evasion.

Under Florida law, constitutional officers, such as sheriffs, are prohibited from accepting gifts from lobbyists worth more than $100. The fishing trip, which included four people, came out to about $190 per person. Although a violation of the state’s gift law is not a criminal offense, sanctions can range from public censure and fines to removal from office. No one, however, filed a complaint against Balkwill with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Despite Armor having spent over $1,500 to obtain “access” to Sheriff Balkwill through the fishing trip, a meeting at a fancy restaurant and an evening out on the town with his wife, Balkwill said he awarded the contract to Armor because it was the cheapest. Since its founding in 2004, Armor has received over $240 million in contracts in Florida alone. [See: PLN, August 2006, p.29].

The company has accomplished that not only by lavishing gifts upon public officials, but also by utilizing the “good ole boy” network. Part of that strategy has been to hire former government employees to urge their former associates to award contracts to Armor. For example, Armor has hired ex-Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson, as well as sheriffs in Palm Beach, Brevard County and Broward County, to lobby other sheriffs for health care contracts.

Henderson participated in the Okeechobee fishing trip. “There wasn’t anything to it,” he said. “[Sheriff Balkwill] and I are friends. I remember we caught a couple of fish, had a good time. That’s all.” However, when Balkwill initially rejected bids from other firms for the county jail’s health care contract, negotiated with Armor for a lower bid, and then ultimately awarded the three-year $9 million contract to Armor, there was more to the story for Henderson. Under his “consultant” agreement with Armor, Henderson receives a fee every time he helps the company obtain a contract.

The lawsuit filed by PHS against the sheriff’s office is still pending, and Sheriff Balkwill has refused to attend depositions in the case. He has denied that he intends to work for Armor after he retires in 2008. See: Prison Health Services v. Sarasota County, Sarasota County (FL) Circuit Court, Case No. 2007-CA-10652-NC.

Sources: Herald Tribune, Tampa Bay online

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Related legal case

Prison Health Services v. Sarasota County