The city’s inspector general blasted Sheriff Marlin Gusman on Thursday for conducting the public’s business behind closed doors, urging him to let outsiders observe the selection process for a multimillion-dollar contract that will be awarded to an outside firm to provide medical and mental-health care to inmates at Orleans Parish Prison.

But Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s last-minute letter to the sheriff appeared to have no effect on a meeting held Thursday morning at Gusman’s new kitchen/warehouse facility, where a panel unanimously selected a “preferred bidder” for the contract.

In fact, it was unclear whether members of the evaluation panel were aware of Quatrevaux’s letter, issued Thursday morning, at the time they met. Quatrevaux said he only learned about the planned closed-door meeting on Wednesday.

Gusman spokesman Philip Stelly said he had no details about the meeting, and after it was concluded, he refused to identify the chosen bidder, even as he claimed the Sheriff’s Office “has and will continue to comply with regulations related to the public procurement process.”

The secretive nature of the selection meeting also drew criticism from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose spokesman issued a statement touting the city’s transparency in such matters and the “sweeping reforms of city contracting procedures” enacted on Landrieu’s watch.

The city, which, by law, must pay for the care of inmates at OPP, has been locked in a bitter feud with Gusman over funding for an expensive court-ordered plan for jail reform.

The medical and mental-health care proposals considered Thursday ranged from $8 million to $14 million, according to Quatrevaux’s letter, making the contract among the most lucrative related to the implementation of the federal consent decree for improvements at the jail.

“New Orleans deserves an open and honest government, and these open and transparent processes help us spend tax dollars more wisely and encourage a more robust local economy,” Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said in a statement. “We have continued to urge the sheriff to use the city’s procurement policy, but he has not agreed.”

The policy Landrieu put in place for awarding professional-services contracts requires that panels of city officials hold public meetings to evaluate the proposals.

Stelly sought to distance Gusman from Thursday’s meeting, saying the sheriff was “not involved in the selection process” and was not a member of the independent panel made up of representatives of the Sheriff’s Office, a private physician, a consultant and Charlotte Parent, the city’s acting health director.

“Today’s unanimous recommendation ensures that this procurement is based on the quality and cost of the proposals,” Stelly said.

He said the selection process began with a nationwide request for proposals, which drew eight firms to a pre-bid conference this spring and six formal proposals. He had previously identified seven of the interested firms as Correctional Healthcare Companies, Armor Correctional Health Services, Correct Care Solutions, Correct Health Companies, NaphCare, Wexford Health and Health Assurance.

“Independent individuals from the community and other public agencies evaluated the proposals for medical and mental-health services in a fair and equitable manner,” Stelly said. “The Sheriff’s Office is in the process of notifying the bidders and expects to begin negotiations with the preferred bidder in the near future to determine if a contract can be finalized.”

In the request for proposals, the Sheriff’s Office said it was seeking a “medical provider to maximize treatment and care of inmates within the detention facilities, thereby avoiding unnecessary instances involving transportation, utilization of staff, and security risks created by off-site movement, and to ensure adequate and constitutional health care.”

One of the general terms in the RFP was that the contractor must “fully comply” with the federal consent decree, an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires wholesale changes in staffing and inmate care at OPP.

Medical and mental-health care of inmates has been among OPP’s greatest deficiencies.

In their most recent compliance report, published in February, a team of court-appointed experts monitoring implementation of the consent decree noted a “risk of serious harm to prisoners with serious medical needs.”

“The facilities have insufficient health professional staffing, insufficient policies, inadequate training and supervision, confusing and disorganized medical record-keeping practices, insufficient performance measurement and self-critical analysis, and inattention to sanitation and public health practices,” the monitors wrote.

In his letter to the sheriff, Quatrevaux noted that, as with other consent decree-related costs, city officials, and ultimately the taxpayers, will have to foot the bill for the medical and mental-health care costs with “extremely limited” funds.

“The selection of contractors in private is a very large red flag to procurement auditors,” Quatrevaux wrote. “If this sizable and important procurement is not opened to the public, it would affect our risk assessment and likely result in substantial auditing and other oversight activities. In the interest of promoting transparency and fairness in government, I ask that you open this procurement process to public scrutiny.”

In a brief interview, Quatrevaux said holding such a selection meeting behind closed doors is not illegal. “It’s bad practice,” he said. “It’s a practice associated with corruption, for obvious reasons.”

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