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Newsmonger: State rejects GEO's bid for psych hospital, Fusion Centers under fire, Ethics probe heads to hearing


State rejects GEO's bid for psych hospital

What exactly was it that tanked the GEO Group's proposal to take over management of the Kerrville State Hospital? Was it the patient found dead in a scalding bath at a South Florida GEO-run psychiatric hospital, his body discovered with skin "sloughing" off his face? The rehab programs at GEO's Montgomery County psychiatric facility, which the Texas Department of State Health Services recently described as "bedlam"? Or the company's management of a juvenile lockup in Mississippi, which a federal judge claimed "allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate"?

None of the above. And the real reason DSHS last week rejected GEO's bid to privatize the Kerrville State Hospital gives us some insight into just how companies like GEO manage to cut costs for states looking to save cash by privatizing jails, psych hospitals, and youth correctional facilities: by slashing staffing levels at the expense of care.

Following the Lege's directive last year to solicit bids to privatize one of the state's psychiatric hospitals, GEO Care, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the private-prison behemoth, was the only company that submitted a proposal, saying it could run the Kerrville facility at 10 percent below current costs.

In a letter sent to the Legislative Budget Board and Gov. Rick Perry's office last week, DSHS Commissioner David Lakey outlined why the agency rejected GEO's proposal. "Although many of the issues identified in the proposal could possibly be addressed, the savings in the proposal were achieved primarily through reductions in staffing and benefits to a degree that would put both our patients and the State of Texas at risk," he wrote.

To lower costs, the GEO proposal would have cut facility staff by 21 percent, from 542 hospital staffers to 428. GEO also would have cut psychiatric nursing assistant staff from 167 to 118, a 29 percent reduction. "It is my belief that these staffing levels are not sufficient to serve the individual needs of patients at this facility or to ensure a safe environment for patients and staff," Leaky wrote.

In a summary assessment of the GEO bid DSHS sent the Current last week, the agency said the proposal "did not ensure compliance with fundamental requirements of operating a facility as indicated in the RFP and as required by law." GEO's submitted policies didn't live up to the rules governing state mental health hospitals, as outlined in the Texas Administrative Code, the agency noted.

The agency also expressed concern that GEO's proposal woudln't meet minimum staff-to-patient ratios mandated for the state's psychiatric hospitals. Current state hospital staffing patterns, including those at Kerrville, were implemented due to a federal class action lawsuit filed in 1974 accusing the state of an array of serious violations at its psychiatric hospitals. The case was settled in 1997 after Texas implemented new staffing patterns to ensure quality care and patient safety.

The GEO Care would have saved the state an estimated $3.4 million, largely through layoffs and reduced benefits for GEO staff. The company also planned to cut spending on patient medical care and client services, according to the proposal.

Fusion Centers under fire

One of the country's largest post-9/11 domestic counterterrorism efforts is essentially a failure, a Congressional investigation found last week.

The analysis out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations reviewed a year's worth of reports out of the country's 77 so-called "Fusion Centers," regional intelligence-gathering partnerships between state, local, and the Department of Homeland Security officials bolstered by federal cash. The report states these fusion centers "forwarded 'intelligence' of uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism."

Texas has more of these fusion centers than any other state, six in total, including the Austin Regional Intelligence Center and San Antonio's newly-minted Southwest Texas Fusion Center. Exactly how much the feds have dumped into these counter-terrorism intelligence-gathering partnerships is unclear. DHS figures peg spending somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion in support of state and local fusion centers since 2003, broad estimates that differ by over $1 billion.

Last month, the nonpartisan Constitution Project issued its own report warning the intelligence-gathering centers provide little bang for the buck while encouraging the unwarranted harassment of First-Amendment protected activities. One example being a February 2009 "Prevention Awareness Bulletin" circulated out of a North Texas fusion center describing Muslim lobbying groups as "providing an environment for terrorist organizations to flourish." The bulletin warned that "the threats to Texas are significant" and called for law enforcement officers to report on activities like Muslim "hip hop fashion boutiques, hip hop bands, use of online social networks, video sharing networks, chat forums and blogs." The Constitution Project went on to warn "the definitions of suspicious behavior used by federal government and police forces are wide-ranging and include behavior that may be completely innocuous."

DHS officials often "overstated fusion centers' 'success stories,'" according to the Congressional report.

While Congressional investigators couldn't find evidence that any fusion center had uncovered or disrupted an active terrorist plot, they instead found: Nearly one-third of all reports generated were never circulated because "they lacked any useful information, or potentially violated department guidelines meant to protect Americans' civil liberties or Privacy Act protections."

DHS has continued to store "troubling intelligence reports from fusion centers on U.S. persons, possibly in violation of the Privacy Act."

Ethics probe heads to hearing

Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni was set to head before the city's Ethics Review Board for an informal hearing Tuesday night to discuss whether he violated the city's ethics code. The board could decide to set a formal hearing to review the case later this year. Or they could flat-out reject the notion that DiGiovanni did anything wrong when he: 1) Stayed on a selection committee this summer for the $300 million Convention Center expansion contract awarded to Zachry Corp, and 2) simultaneously negotiated with construction-firm head David Zachry over a new job as CEO for the nonprofit Centro Partnership, where Zachry sat on the executive board tasked with vetting and hiring DiGiovanni.

The city's ethics rules state a city employee should step aside from the decision-making table in order to avoid the "appearance and risk of impropriety" — including whenever a city employee has sought or been offered a job from someone or some business with a financial stake in that employee's actions at City Hall.

Rather than wait for someone to file a complaint against him, DiGiovanni wrote a letter to the city's Ethics Review Board last month asking for an opinion himself. Even should the Ethics Review Board opt for a formal hearing, the board's history proves it more paper tiger than a serious vehicle for local government oversight. As the E-N points out this week, the vast majority of allegations that have come before the board have been dismissed. And even when the board does find wrongdoing, it favors chiding the ethically lapsed party with a letter rather than actually handing down punishment. Case in point: former Councilwoman Jennifer Ramos, who last year went before the board on allegations she helped bat for her then-employer, WellMed, at City Hall. Included in the charges was an instance when Ramos got other council members to sign a letter supporting a contract between WellMed and the San Antonio Housing Authority, a letter bearing Ramos' signature and City of San Antonio letterhead but written by Ramos' WellMed boss. The ERB dismissed the most serious allegations against her, finding her guilty only of using city computers to send emails that were private-work related. She received only a letter of admonition from the board.

*Update: Found guilty. Read the whole story here.


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