Essex County to re-bid immigration detention center
Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 8:55 AM Updated: Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 11:47 AM
NEWARK — Essex County is preparing to rebid a contract for a deal with the federal government worth roughly a quarter-billion dollars to Essex County to house immigration detainees after it tossed out the previous sole bidder, a politically connected company.
The first bidding process was ended after a letter from U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) questioned the fairness of the process.
In July, Lautenberg wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton citing concerns the county’s bidding process "may not be entirely fair, open and transparent." The letter came after the sole applicant, Education and Health Centers of America, landed the job.
In a responding letter, obtained Monday by The Star-Ledger, ICE officials said they received assurance from Essex the bidding process to find a vendor for the lucrative contract to house detainees in the county was "conducted in a fair and reasonable manner."
However, the federal agency also notes "ICE does not have the authority to review or enforce procurement laws or regulations at the state and local level," states the Aug. 4 letter.
The county later threw out the controversial bid to house detainees in Delaney Hall in Newark and is now expected to advertise an overhauled proposal. The contract is expected to be worth $50 million annually for five years.
This second round could differ significantly because Essex will be simultaneously seeking vendors to house two different groups: ICE detainees awaiting hearings or deportation, and county inmates receiving drug and alcohol treatment.
A county spokesman said the new bid is being finalized and declined to say when exactly it would be open to bidders. Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. said during a freeholder meeting last week the county is "ready to go out to bid very shortly."
Top officials at both the nonprofit EHCA and Community Education Centers, the for-profit company it contracts with, have made campaign contributions to DiVincenzo or are close allies of Gov. Chris Christie.
Freeholder vice president Ralph Caputo, chair of the public safety/penal committee, said he wants to see more groups vie for the contract.
"You can’t force anyone to do it, but hopefully there will be some competition involved," he said.
Essex has a five-year contract with Community Education Centers for an inmate rehabilitation program at Delaney Hall that expires Dec. 31. The county tossed the bid and decided to house detainees in Delaney under an existing contract. Officials said canceling the bid had nothing to do with the scrutiny surrounding the bid process, but was a cost-saving move. As part of its reform efforts, ICE will conduct annual inspections plus unannounced visits and spot checks at the county jail and Delaney Hall, the letter states.
DiVincenzo signed a five-year deal with ICE in August to increase the number of immigrant detainees in Essex to 1,250.