County seeks OK for jail contract

Company would help get funds for housing immigrants

March 13, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

Baltimore County jail administrators are seeking approval to renew a contract that pays a private company to help procure federal money for housing undocumented immigrants, an arrangement that has been criticized elsewhere as wasteful.

Under the deal, which was scheduled to come before the County Council at its work session today, Texas-based Justice Benefits Inc. would receive an 18 percent commission on the county's reimbursement from the federal government for housing the undocumented immigrants.

County officials say the arrangement, first used this year, allows the county to take advantage of the company's expertise in securing federal dollars, while saving employees from being bogged down with preparing applications. The deal is similar to the one used in Carroll County four years ago, but an official there said he came to find the company's services unnecessary.

"Quite honestly, it was one of those expenditures where it was like, `Why would we pay a company to do what we can do?'" said Maj. Stephen C. Reynolds, assistant warden for administration in Carroll County, where 15 to 20 undocumented immigrants are housed in jails on a given day.

In Denver, a government auditor sought in 2003 to void a similar contract. Although officials continue to use Justice Benefits for the federal program, a spokesman for the Denver auditor's office said yesterday that he still does not understand why the work is not done in-house.

"It's basically creating a database," the spokesman, Denis Berckefeldt, said. "It wasn't rocket science."

The U.S. Justice Department's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which started in the mid-1990s, reimbursed counties $2.87 million in fiscal year 2005 for housing undocumented immigrants. Jails can seek reimbursement for inmates convicted of a felony or two misdemeanors and who have been incarcerated for at least four days.

Baltimore County jail administrator James P. O'Neill said he became aware of the program several years ago after talking with officials in Montgomery County. Last year, Baltimore County signed a contract with Justice Benefits.

O'Neill said he does not think there was a bidding process because the county knew of no other companies providing the same services as Justice Benefits.

The county is awaiting federal approval of claims prepared by the company, but O'Neill said he expects reimbursement for the past year to total $25,000 to $30,000. He could not estimate how many of the jail's inmates were illegal immigrants.

The money would go into the county's general fund.

The county's contract with Justice Benefits must be renewed yearly. The county administration estimates that the company would procure at most $72,000 a year for the county and be paid a maximum of $12,000 a year.

The Texas-based company procured about $16 million for 427 counties in fiscal year 2005.

The Associated Press reported in 2002 that 30 Illinois counties had hired Justice Benefits.

Sheriff Keith Nygren of McHenry County, near Chicago, said then that he didn't need the firm to secure federal money.

"We're not geniuses here," he said, according to the news account. "We've been doing it since 1998 and gotten over a half-million dollars. I'd be damned if I had to give somebody 20 percent to do it."

Baltimore County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz said the government has hired businesses to collect money for unpaid parking tickets.

"So the concept is not unreasonable," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, adding that he wants to hear more about the program before deciding how he will vote Monday.

Kimberly King, a Justice Benefits executive, said applying for the federal money requires numerous tasks, such as the verifying the illegal status of inmates and the salaries of correctional officers.

"We find that a lot of our clients don't have the time, don't have the technology, the expertise to put together these applications, so that's where our company comes in," King said.

Reynolds, the jail official in Carroll County, said that the county has been awarded less money since dropping the firm several years ago.

For fiscal year 2005, the county was reimbursed $10,019 - about half of the amount it received the year it used JBI, he said. He said he could not explain the discrepancy. But he said he and other officials became concerned that, if a federal government audit had found that accounting irregularities were used, the county would have been held responsible.

In 2003, the Denver government's auditor sought to void a contract between the sheriff's department and Justice Benefits. The auditor said at the time that the contract potentially cost the city $1 million in federal grants over six years because it paid the firm 21 percent of the grant money it procured - double the industry standard of 10 percent, the auditor's spokesman said at the time.

The auditor reported that the Denver government might have received federal funds to which it was not entitled. An audit done by an independent firm found that JBI included inmates on grant applications that may not have met the eligibility requirements, the auditor's spokesman said.

King of Justice Benefits said federal audits of its clients have never shown problems in its applications. She said the company's fees reflect the workload of preparing applications.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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