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Hazy billing, bail theft plague jail // BILLS CHALLENGED

An analysis of the county's payments for inmate care at the Hernando County Jail indicates that at least one-fourth of the bills sent by Corrections Corporation of America may be unjustified.

The number is uncertain because 40 percent of the 378 inmate records examined by county purchasing director Jim Gantt did not include enough information to determine whether the bills were appropriate.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based company is paid $35.46 per day for every inmate housed at the jail for more than four hours. In the eight years CCA has run the jail, the billings have never been audited. This year, the county budgeted $2-million of taxpayer money for daily inmate care by CCA.

Connie Flesch, the county's former contract manager, said she discovered last month that the county had been improperly billed for an inmate. The incorrect billing prompted her to review five other randomly selected inmate bills. She found that all five were for inmates incarcerated less than four hours, she said Friday.

When she and Gantt took the data to County Administrator Chuck Hetrick, he asked them to audit three months of bills, she said.

Gantt pulled the CCA inmate bills for August, October and December of 1995 _ 378 in all. But he could only review 228 of the records because 150 were incomplete. Gantt found 53 bills, totaling $1,858.72, that should not have been paid by the county because they were bills for inmates jailed four hours or less.

But Hetrick said Friday the erroneous billings may not be CCA's fault. Hetrick said the county's contract with CCA is not clear about when the four-hour clock should start running.

"Does it start when law enforcement brings the prisoner into the jail or does it start at the time of booking? There can be a lapse of time, for a variety of reasons, such as, if the prisoner has to be dried out before being booked," he said.

Hetrick acknowledged that when an inmate is put in a holding cell before being booked, CCA doesn't incur much expense.

"If they haven't checked in, they haven't gotten prison gear, so obviously the expense to CCA would be lower," he said.

According to Gantt's analysis, CCA does not document when the prisoner is brought into the jail. Instead, the arresting officer documents the time of arrest, and the jail staff documents the booking time. According to Gantt's review, those times can be hours apart.

For instance, one inmate arrested at 10:05 p.m. on Dec. 23 wasn't booked into jail until 5:30 the next morning. The inmate was released at 6:45 a.m. _ one hour and 15 minutes after being booked. CCA billed the county the $35.46 daily rate for imprisonment of longer than four hours.

Hetrick acknowledged that arrests often take place at the scene of the crime and that the arresting officer might experience delays in bringing the suspect to jail.

"We envisioned at the time of signing the contract that we were talking about booking time. Now it needs to be resolved, and it's going to be resolved to the best interest of the county and the taxpayers."

Hetrick said Gantt's review made clear that CCA must compile more accurate information and must complete the reporting forms. "The jail needs to tighten up," he said.

Gantt recommended that the county help CCA train its staff to complete the necessary documentation for billing and to develop a standardized inmate record file, from the time of arrest to the time of release. Gantt also recommended the installation of a date-time recorder to document booking and release times.

Hetrick said all past billings now would be audited to determine whether the county has overpaid CCA. He said future billings would be spot-checked for accuracy and appropriateness.

Flesch said auditing eight years of inmate billings would be arduous.

"It took three of us two full days, from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening, to do three months' worth of bills," she said. "Then it took us the rest of the week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, to compile our information and statistics."

The billing audit is the second controversy in recent weeks involving CCA.

Earlier this month, Hetrick threatened to fire Flesch, not because she hadn't adequately monitored the contract; he charged that she accepted two dinners and a paperweight from jail administrator L. T. Brown.

Flesch quit Feb. 5, saying Brown invented criticisms of her in retaliation for her complaints of alleged improprieties at the jail. Flesch told authorities in October about rumored drug use and sexual incidents among officers and inmates. Two correctional officers later were terminated for improper behavior with inmates. Flesch said her relationship with Brown deteriorated after she reported the problems.

Neither Brown nor his assistant at the jail could be reached for comment on Friday.

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