Nassau lawmakers were presented with allegations of poor care by the county’s embattled private jail medical provider before they approved its initial contract five years ago, records show.
The county legislature’s Republican-controlled Rules Committee in April 2011 voted along party lines to approve a two-year, $22 million agreement with Armor Correctional Health Services — despite concerns voiced by Democrats and union leaders about lawsuits against the firm from its work in other jails. The pact was subsequently renewed twice, each for another two years.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman this month filed suit against Armor, saying it repeatedly has denied Nassau inmates adequate care, leading to deaths while defrauding the county and its taxpayers. The move prompted Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, to announce plans to hire a new monitor for jail health care, as Democrats call for the contract to be immediately canceled.
Over the last year, numerous questions have been raised about the quality of Armor’s care after Newsday reports, and the state Commission of Correction found that three inmate deaths since 2014 “may have been prevented.” The families of four Nassau inmates who died in custody since mid-2011 have filed federal lawsuits against the county and Armor.
“We had a gut feeling,” said Civil Service Employees Association President Jerry Laricchiuta, who represented the public workers at Nassau University Medical Center, which previously provided inmate health care. “You can only base a company or a person or a politician on their record, and this company’s record was horrible.”
But Republican legislators who supported the initial contract said this week that Armor, which in 2011 was already caring for inmates in multiple states, met all of the bid requirements set forth by the county. They said the older lawsuits weren’t necessarily predictive of how the company would perform in Nassau.
“Lawsuits in a correctional health care setting are to be expected, and are common throughout the country,” said Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Levittown), one of four GOP lawmakers who voted for the first Armor contract in April 2011.
Armor has defended its performance and said it disputes the state’s findings in Nassau. The company was not present at the 2011 legislative meeting where its contract was approved.
Company spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez said this week that “we do not feel a comment would be appropriate” about initial concerns expressed about the company. She cited the Mangano administration’s newly issued requests for proposals for inmate care, for which bids are due later this summer.
At the time county lawmakers approved the first Armor contract, the Mangano administration pitched the jail medical contract as a cost-saver, but also an improvement over using staff from NUMC, the nearby public hospital, since almost all care would be administered on-site.
The administration noted then that the pact had performance measurements to hold the vendor accountable, and financial penalties for noncompliance — which Schneiderman in his July 11 lawsuit said the county has never used.
“What we’re looking to do is increase our ability to monitor the health care at the facility and to make sure that the inmates are getting the appropriate health care,” sheriff’s Capt. Michael Golio said at the Apr. 18, 2011, Rules Committee meeting, according to minutes.
The sheriff’s department runs the jail.
But Ken Nicholson, the local CSEA unit president for NUMC workers, urged legislators to halt the initial Armor contract. He testified at the Rules Committee meeting that he had found a number of lawsuits against Armor for their work in other jails across the country, including some that alleged they delayed care to inmates for up to a week.
Twenty-five of the suits were pending at the time, Nicholson told legislators, and two had been settled, including one, for $500,000, that involved an inmate death.
“With all due respect, how does this committee, with respect to due diligence, pass this contract with so many open questions?” Nicholson said.
He asked lawmakers to take heed of a previous privatization that did not work out: a late ’90s contract with Benefit Plan Administrators Inc., an employee health care plan that promised millions in savings but ended up costing the county $70 million and leading to the conviction of a top county official on corruption charges.
“Let’s not forget the mess that this county got themselves into when we entered into a contract a few years ago with BPA; that turned out to be a disaster and it looks like we’re setting ourselves up for another disaster with this contract,” Nicholson testified in 2011.
“Thinking about it not just from a cost standpoint but from opening ourselves up to possible litigation . . . I just don’t see why we would enter into something which appears to be less,” Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), one of the two Democrats who voted “no” on the contract, said at the meeting.
Abrahams said this week that, in light of the attorney general’s lawsuit, “we hate to say, ‘We told you so’ . . . but at the same time, that’s why we raised those questions.”
Mangano administration officials told lawmakers in 2011 that Miami-based Armor, which was founded in 2004, had 80 lawsuits against it stemming from work in 13 jails, including 52 that had been dismissed, six that were settled and 22 that were pending at the time. The administration noted that NUMC since 2004 had 144 claims against it related to inmate care, including six that appeared to have been settled.
“So litigationwise, Armor appears to have a better record when you look at the number of jails that they’ve been in,” said Elizabeth Loconsolo, who was then a deputy county attorney assigned to corrections.
Armor, officials added, was fully indemnifying the county from liability — unless a county employee was found to have also committed wrongdoing or been negligent.
The Armor contract was presented to legislators in March 2011 after a request for proposals that former County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, had issued in July 2009. Armor was among seven companies that responded in fall 2009, but no action was taken before Suozzi left office after losing to Mangano that November.
Mangano selected Armor as the winning bidder in January 2011, records show. Backup documentation with the original contract gave no details of Armor’s cost proposal compared with other bidders, or their ranking by a county panel on other aspects.
At the rules meeting, the administration repeatedly touted that Armor would save the county roughly $5 million a year on inmate care compared with using NUMC.
But GOP lawmakers expressed hesitation over privatizing the work even as they approved the contract. At the time, Mangano had budgeted for the savings as part of a plan submitted to the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the state oversight board that had just taken control of county finances.
Republicans largely placed blame on NUMC — then still led by Arthur Gianelli, a Suozzi appointee — for not formally bidding to retain the work, and for what they characterized as a lack of a plan to match the savings proposed by Armor.
Gianelli was not present at the meeting but had encouraged the county in 2009 to seek other bids for inmate medical care, saying the cost had strained other aspects of hospital operations.
“Even though we can do it, they wouldn’t do it and that’s what bothers me terribly,” Dunne said at the time. “And we have to go along with this, with this thing.”
Just before the April 2011 vote, Laricchiuta said of continuing to use NUMC, “I plead with you, give it another shot.”
Golio, who defended the contract at the initial meeting, did not respond to a request for comment this week on the union’s assertion that the lawsuits served as warnings about Armor’s quality of care.
Then-Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa), who died in 2012, said immediately after the Rules Committee approved the Armor contract, 4-2, that it was “a very difficult vote that was just taken up here.
“Nassau County can’t wait to save money,” he said, “it has to start right now.”
Dunne then expressed hope that the administration could still strike a last-ditch deal with NUMC and the union to pledge the savings and keep inmate care public.
“We can cancel this contract within 30 days at any time,” he said in 2011. “So if you can come up with a better deal . . . we will definitely cancel this and go with you.”
With Bridget Murphy