Lawmaker asks attorney general to investigate Aramark's prison food contract

State Rep. Brent Yonts thinks Aramark is serving food of questionable quality.
State Rep. Brent Yonts thinks Aramark is serving food of questionable quality.

FRANKFORT — A state lawmaker wants Attorney General Jack Conway to investigate possible violations of Aramark Correctional Services' $12 million food service contract with the Kentucky Corrections Department.

Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said Aramark broke the terms of the deal last year by refusing to provide cost-related records to state auditors who were conducting their own investigation of food served to inmates at Kentucky's 13 prisons.

In a Jan. 4 letter to Conway, Yonts also listed other "examples of contract breach" identified in state Auditor Crit Luallen's final report, including Aramark overbilling the state and serving old food to inmates that was not stored properly.

"I believe it is obvious that the contract has not been complied with and that Aramark is in substantial breach of it," Yonts wrote.

Conway spokeswoman Allison Martin on Friday said the attorney general's office is reviewing Yonts' request.

Aramark spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis defended her company in a brief prepared statement but did not respond to Yonts' individual allegations.

"We provide excellent service that has saved the commonwealth more than $30 million to date," Jarvis said.

The Corrections Department is in the process of renewing Aramark's contract for two more years, prisons spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said.

Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson sent a letter Dec. 7 to the legislature responding to the auditors' concerns. Prison officials and others reviewed the Aramark contract and decided the company did not violate it, Thompson told lawmakers.

At issue is a provision in Aramark's contract, awarded in 2004 by then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, that required the company to share internal records with state officials for the purposes of financial audit or program review.

In their report, state auditors said Aramark refused to provide cost-related records they requested to determine whether price adjustments were justified and to evaluate concerns regarding a decline in the quality and quantity of food, among their other purposes.

The company offered to provide "information, by year, of its costs of goods, labor, direct expenses, overhead and profits on an overhead basis," but only if auditors agreed to keep the information confidential and omitted it from their report, auditors wrote. That was not an acceptable alternative, auditors wrote.

When the Fletcher administration privatized prison kitchens, it argued that taxpayers would save money, auditors wrote. But that claim is difficult to verify without access to the relevant records, they wrote.

"Privatization of government functions should be approached with the same level of accountability and transparency as if the government operated the services," auditors wrote.

Yonts, a member of the legislature's Government Contract Review Committee, said he was surprised the Corrections Department is defending Aramark.

"I don't know who decided that it wasn't a contract violation, but I'm sure it wasn't a lawyer," Yonts said in an interview last week. "It could not be clearer that they failed to provide the records they were legally required to provide."

Yonts has been a critic of Aramark for months. He said he has toured several prisons and spoken to inmates and their families from across the state.

While some people might not sympathize with inmates, Yonts said, his research and the Oct. 7 state audit suggest Aramark has served food of questionable quality and in portions smaller than the contract required.

According to the audit, Aramark sometimes used margarine and other condiments to make up to 300 calories of its daily requirement of 2,800 calories per inmate. Inmates said margarine was used even in meals such as soup or peanut butter sandwiches, auditors wrote.

Aramark also made last-minute menu substitutions, such as giving inmates four brownie pieces instead of meat; reported using less beans, pasta, rice and potatoes than recipes called for; and kept leftover food in storage beyond acceptable time limits, auditors wrote.

Yonts said inmates were upset about food at Northpoint Training Center, a state prison near Danville where inmates staged a riot in 2009. A state investigative report last year said inmates' food complaints contributed to the riot but were not its primary cause.

"We're told that we're saving money by privatizing prison food," Yonts said. "Well, what did we lose at Northpoint? Buildings worth $16 million, $18 million. Burned to the ground. That's not what I call savings."