by Kevin Bliss
On December 14, 2021, the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) canceled its contract with the Keefe Group as provider of prison commissary items. The next day, the state’s chief procurement officer, Ellen Daley, released a 25-page ruling determining the firm’s bid was improper and erroneous.
DOC had solicited bids for vendors to supply prisoner canteen items in March 2021 using the state’s e-procurement system, BidBuy. Vendors were told to submit a bid using a provided spreadsheet listing items to be offered. For each item, bidders needed to calculate a total annual cost based on estimated usage supplied by DOC.
Three vendors submitted bids: Keefe, Union Supply Group (USG) and Performance Food Group (PFG). Keefe was awarded the bid with a quote of $207 million. PFG’s bid was declared non-responsive, and USG’s quote—a whopping $7 billion—was rejected.
USG then filed a protest, stating the solicitation was ambiguous and that Keefe violated the bid solicitation’s requirements. Daley agreed with USG’s evaluation, after finding ambiguities in the spreadsheet.
Snickers candy bars, for example, come in cases of 384 bars, and DOC had estimated its usage at 17,570. But 17,570 of what—candy bars, or cases? USG requested clarification from DOC, which replied that the usage was estimated in cases and that it was, in fact, for one year.
So when the bids were opened, UFG’s included a line with 17,570 cases of Snickers at a cost of $285.31 each, for a total of $5,012,931.84. Keefe, on the other hand, submitted a bid that included 17,570 candy bars at a cost of 68 cents each for a total of $11,947.60.
As Daley noted, if the number applied to cases, the solicitation implied that every prisoner in the state of Illinois eats two Snickers bars a day. On the other hand, if DOC accepted Keefe’s bid believing it was for cases, each candy bar would cost less than one cent each.
Given that, Daley declared, a vendor like USG had no choice but to submit an incorrect bid—unless, like Keefe, it simply ignored instructions. As a result, Daley ruled that DOC needed to revise its spreadsheet and resubmit the request for bids. DOC then voluntarily canceled its contract with Keefe one day prior to the release of Daley’s ruling.
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