Former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain spent nearly a half a million dollars remodeling the building that housed his Slidell work release program before turning the operation over to a private company owned, in part, by the adult children of two of his top deputies, according to records obtained by WWL-TV.
Work release programs allow state prisoners at the end of their sentences to stay at prison-like barracks at night, while working at jobs in the community during the day.
In 2013, Strain inked a no-bid contract with a newly-formed company called St. Tammany Workforce Solutions to run his Slidell work release program.
Hundreds of pages of invoices show the sheriff's office added on a new kitchen full of new equipment, updated the landscaping and added a new security system complete with $16,954 worth of cameras.
“Essentially the sheriff's office modernized the whole facility and made it move-in ready for a private vendor,” said Rafael Goyeneche, President of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
In all, invoices show Strain spent $452,275.70 to fix up the site, yet at the time, Strain said his reason for privatizing the program was he didn’t want to sink any more money into the facility and that it was on the verge of losing money.
“We did everything we could but we understood that at some point in time, we had to make a decision, either shut it down or privatize it. I believe we made the best choice,” Strain said in 2013.
State business records show that the private vendor Strain chose to move into the remodeled building and operate the program, St. Tammany Workforce Solutions, is owned by construction company owner Allen Tingle, Jarret Keen and Brandy Hanson. Keen, who was 21 years old at the time the company formed, and Hanson are the adult children of two of Strain's top deputies.
Jarret Keen’s name is listed as Jarret Colekeen on state paperwork.
Just four months after the former sheriff privatized the program, WWL-TV asked then-Sheriff Strain whether he had handed the program over to his friends.
“I know all of the individuals involved. The operators of both facilities. Friends? I have a lot of friends in St. Tammany Parish. I've been sheriff for 17 years. I've been in this profession 32 years. I am acquaintances with them as I am with many of the other contractors who work with the sheriff's office,” Strain said in an interview four months after giving the work release contract to St. Tammany Workforce Solutions.
The invoices show Major Clifford “Skip” Keen was the contact person for the renovations to the site. He was Strain's facility and fleet manager.
Skip Keen was coordinating improvements to a building that his son's company would later move into.
The Keens didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment.
Despite that, legal experts say there was no legal or ethical conflict because Skip Keen didn't award the work release contract to his son's company, Strain did.
But did the move make good business sense?
“It might have been a better deal for the sheriff's office and the taxpayers to solicit bids on turning that over to a private vendor and letting them make the improvements and repairs to the building,” Goyeneche said.
The contract between STPSO and St. Tammany Workforce solutions did require the contractor to provide all maintenance and repairs to the building, but again, the contract was signed after all the work was already completed.
Strain declined an on-camera interview for this story but told our partners at the New Orleans Advocate that the renovation was done long before he decided to privatize the Slidell work release program.
In reality, the first supplies were purchased a year before the St. Tammany Workforce Solutions took over.
One of the owners, Tingle, was paid $2,000 to pull the permits for the remodel in August of 2012. He, Keen and Hanson formed their company in March 2013, using 141 Production Drive, the address of the sheriff’s work release facility, on the state paperwork.
They signed the contract with STPSO and took over the program in June 2013.
STPSO continued to renovate the building, even buying new kitchen equipment for the facility the month before St. Tammany Workforce Solutions took control.
Last week, Strain said the kitchen was inadequate at the facility and that it needed the renovations. He went on to say that the Department of Corrections, or DOC, had criticized the sheriff's office for its condition.
Audit reports from DOC for the two years leading up to the renovations don't mention the kitchen.
Strain also said he renovated the work release building so he could charge a higher rent. St. Tammany Workforce Solutions was paying $3.10 a square foot a year.
In St. Tammany, industrial leases can cost anywhere from $5 to $6 a square foot annually, but Don Shea, an economic development expert, said he would not consider $3.10 to be out of line.
But compare that to the privately-run work release program in East Baton Rouge Parish, where the operator is paying the East Baton Rouge Sheriff close to $8 a square foot per year to lease their facility.
“At that rate it would take years to recoup that half a million dollars that the sheriff's office invested,” Goyeneche said.
Strain lost his re-election bid and left the sheriff's office at the end of June.
“Right after I was sworn in at midnight, we went over and swore those individuals, those deputies in and we took it over,” said new St.Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith.
Smith said after all the controversy surrounding St. Tammany’s work release programs, he brought the program back in-house.
“It's my responsibility. I'm the one that's held accountable for those inmates if they do something wrong and it's hard for me to trust someone from the outside to manage it the way it should be managed,” Smith said.
The night he was sworn in as sheriff, Smith assigned a number of deputies to go into the work release building and take back control of the facility. They were greeted with missing security cameras, TVs removed and computers containing information about inmates and operations gone.
St. Tammany Workforce Solutions had every right to take equipment that wasn’t purchased by the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office, but deputies say it made for a difficult transition.
“There were some negotiations between me and the private individual that had it about buying some of their computer system, their software and some of their vehicles, some of their computer systems. And I decided not to buy anything from them and we started from scratch,” Smith said.
It is unknown how much the private contractor was making off the program.
A spreadsheet of revenue and expenses given out by Strain’s spokesman in 2013 indicated rising expenses, including a “capital outlay” of $142,257 that same year. Strain distributed the spreadsheet to make his case that the program should be privatized because of rising costs.
But Smith seems confident it will be a money maker for the sheriff's office.
“We've got some overhead and I think after the first year we should start seeing some revenue. But roughly, I would say, there's probably over a million dollars in revenue that could come in from that facility,” Smith said.
A million dollars a year to put back into running the sheriff's office, instead of the pockets of a construction company owner and the adult children of two top deputies.