MDOC Controversy Reveals Contract Procurement Weaknesses

The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) controversy has exposed weaknesses in the state’s contract procurement processes.

With regard to MDOC, the legislature exempted many contracts from competitive procurement, cracking open the door for abuse.

Allegations have surfaced that even competitive bids can be manipulated. Vendors allege being directed to bid low to get contracts with promises they would be rewarded later, and being strongly encouraged not to bid or asked to submit courtesy bids so preferred bidders could win contracts.

Many large personal and professional service contracts were awarded as “sole source” contracts. That means competitive procurement (bids, RFPs, and RFQs) was avoided. State agency heads have the power to sole source contracts subject to compliance review by the State Personal Service Contract Review Board and a legal review by in-house assistant attorney generals. As currently constituted, the board only considers the compliance review. Members are not asked to use their own expertise and judgment to assess the need for, or pricing of, these contracts.

Whistleblower and oversight mechanisms that might catch unscrupulous actions by agency heads are missing or not functioning.

Governor Phil Bryant appointed a special task force to review MDOC contracts and state contract procurement. Its members are co-chairs Andy Taggart and Judge Robert Gibbs plus Mike Moore, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, and myself.

The task force submitted preliminary recommendations to the governor on December 31st. These include eliminating all legislative exemptions for MDOC contracts or providing an independent review of such; voiding all MDOC contracts, where possible, that were not competitively acquired; reconstituting the Personal Service Contract Review Board with expertise needed to independently review contracts; requiring all state agencies to competitively procure contracts of $100,000 or more; prohibiting or requiring public disclosure of any vendor use of third-party consultants in acquiring state contracts; requiring state agencies to post pre-notices, solicitations, and award analyses for bids, RFQs and RFPs on the new “State Contract/Procurement Opportunity Search” website; establishing and/or promoting confidential hotlines in offices of the Attorney General and State Auditor for citizens and state employees to report suspected wrongdoing; and requiring a financial status review of state agency heads at least every four years.

Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn has sought to revamp the Personal Service Contract Review Board. The task force takes his approach further by making the board fully independent and requiring members to have expertise in financial, medical, and corporate procurement. This resembles the independence and expertise of the Information Technology Services board that reviews IT contracts.

The legislature’s PEER Committee in 2013 recommended more transparency in state procurement. The task force builds on this recommendation by requiring all solicitations to be published along with pre-notices and bid award analyses.

Actually eliminating contract procurement weaknesses will be up to the governor and legislature.

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