FRANKFORT — State Auditor Crit Luallen said Thursday she would do an audit of the private company that has a nearly $12 million annual contract to serve food at the state's 13 prisons.
The announcement came a day after a House committee voted to cancel a contract with Aramark Correctional Services, which served food at Northpoint Training Center at the time of a costly riot there. Also Wednesday, the state released its full investigative report on the Aug. 21 riot, which went into more detail about problems with food at the Mercer County prison.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that they thought Luallen should look into Aramark's performance under the contract.
"I do think it's appropriate to ask the state auditor in some fashion to audit the situation," Tilley said Thursday.
Said Luallen: "While there has not been a formal request yet, there have been enough questions raised by legislators that we will begin to make plans to do an audit of the contract."
Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 6-4 to cancel Aramark's contract because of concerns about the food. Many on the committee questioned whether Aramark was skimping on ingredients to serve more people cheaply.
"Aramark stands behind the quality of service we provide, which has won the accolades of our clients and the national accreditation agencies who monitor the quality of food service," an Aramark spokeswoman said Wednesday.
An audit conducted of Aramark's performance for the Florida prison system in 2007 showed the number of inmates eating meals declined after Aramark took over the food service. But the company was paid based on the number of inmates, not on the number of meals served. Aramark also substituted less costly products such as ground turkey for beef, the audit said.
The audit recommended that Florida rebid the food service or take it over. But Aramark terminated the contract near the end of 2008, according to published reports.
Gov. Steve Beshear praised prison officials' handling of the riot. He said he was "confounded" with the legislature's "continued fixation with the menus for convicted criminals when we're desperately trying to avoid cutting teachers and state troopers. ... We have more than 10 percent unemployment and Kentucky families are struggling to put food on the table, and I am loath to consider millions more dollars for criminals who wish they could go to Wendy's instead."
But Tilley and Stumbo — both Democrats — defended the House's investigation into the riot, which damaged six buildings and caused a fiery melee.
"The truth is, we had a riot on our hands that is probably going to cost the taxpayers $10 million," Stumbo said, referring to money Beshear has requested to rebuild the prison outside of Danville. "And we need to find out why the hell we had it."
Meanwhile, there are still questions about why key parts of the original report on the riot were not immediately released in November. It was only after the House Judiciary Committee repeatedly asked to see the report that the Department of Corrections agreed to release a redacted version of the full report at Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee meeting.
The report released Wednesday showed that Northpoint Warden Steve Haney did not want to implement restrictions that were a primary cause of the riot, but he was overruled by Deputy Commissioner of Adult Institutions Al Parke and Director of Operations James Erwin. The report said the handling of restrictions was "haphazard and poorly planned."
The report also revealed other problems before, during and after the riot, including non-existent radio communications among agencies, a lack of documentation, failed video cameras and a considerable delay in the formal investigation. The report said there was confusion over whether Kentucky State Police or Justice Cabinet investigators should handle the post-riot investigation.
Those details were not released in a summary Nov. 20.
Beshear defended his administration Thursday, saying he was confident the riot was handled correctly.
"I have full confidence in the Secretary of the Justice Cabinet J. Michael Brown and his staff and how they handled the Northpoint riot and its subsequent investigation," Beshear said.
Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said Beshear's office never saw the original report, but had seen the report summary. Beshear's staff asked for more explanation in the summary report but did not ask for anything to be taken out, she said.
Jennifer Brislin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said there was no attempt on the part of the Justice Cabinet or the Department of Corrections to hide or minimize some of the problems on the day of the riot.
Department of Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson left out some of those problems in her Nov. 20 summary because she thought some of those details would compromise security at the prison, Brislin said.
"During her review, she exempted information that she felt would be a security risk to staff and inmates, and that included information regarding how command decisions were made," Brislin said.
House Bill 33 — the bill that would cancel the Aramark contract — now heads to the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. If the state cancels the contract, it could add as much as $5.4 million a year to the state's cost of feeding inmates, according to the Department of Corrections.
Staff writer Ryan Alessi contributed to this report.