Critics question commissioner’s ties to affiliate of bidding group

Bids for the Lycoming County Reentry Center program are due today, and some say one commissioner’s perceived conflict of interest may complicate the deliberation process.

Commissioner Rick Mirabito denies that his connection with Firetree Limited, one of the bidding companies, provides a conflict of interest in the deliberation process or the final vote. Mirabito serves on the board of Firetree Place, a separate nonprofit from Firetree Limited but founded by the firetree organization and its leadership.

“I’ve advocated for other groups,” Mirabito said. “I’ve advocated for more people to come to the bid process because I want it to be competitive.”

Mirabito has pushed for the past year to bid out the county’s day-reporting center for ex-offenders. He has stressed that the county’s high deficit calls for the commissioners to find other ways to save money, and he is critical of the current center’s ability to provide adequate results for the price of the program, which runs about $850,000 per year.

A number of potential bidders met earlier this month to discuss the bid requirements for the center’s contract and ask questions. The contract, which the county holds with The GEO Group, an international organization with a local office on Pine Street, is set to expire in July.

The organizations represented at the meeting were GEO; Firetree Limited, 800 W. Fourth St.; Step Inc., 2138 Lincoln St.; Transitional Living Centers, 900 W. Third St.; and Community Resources for Justice, Boston, Massachusetts.

Also present were representatives from the county courthouse, which oversees the program, Mirabito and Commissioner Tony Mussare.

Mirabito’s perceived connection with Firetree Limited has raised some concerns for a number of individuals involved in the process. He told the Sun-Gazette that, because he is on the board of Firetree Place and not Firetree Limited, no connection exists between him and the local day-reporting center bidding for a contract with the county.

In 2014, Firetree Limited sponsored the creation of Firetree Place, a community development center and after-school program for youth in the area.

According to Mirabito’s 2015 campaign finance report, William Brown and the late Congressman Allen Ertel, co-founders of Firetree Limited, donated to his campaign for commissioner. Mirabito agreed that both men have been supporters of his for years.

The state ethics code defines a conflict of interest as “resulting in a private gain to the entity or the public official it serves or is affiliated with,” according to Robert P. Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.

In this situation, Caruso said it is difficult to say if there is a blatant conflict of interest, but he cautioned against the appearance of impropriety.

Additionally, he said that simply receiving donations from one or more of the concerned parties does not constitute a conflict.

“There needs to be a nexus between the campaign contribution and an action taken by the public official,” he said.

Caruso suggested that Mirabito “seek an advisory ruling from the commission” about the situation before taking a vote on the contract. This would allow the ethics commission to provide a preliminary ruling, should anyone question the legitimacy of the vote.

According to an audio recording of the bids meeting, Mirabito asked if data that The GEO Group had obtained over its past three years with the county, could be shared with the other bidders for the contract.

“We have data. We have three years of data, which is public information,” Mirabito said during the meeting.

According to President Judge Nancy Butts, the information can’t be shared because it is private and belongs to that company, not the county.

“How do you ask somebody to reveal their own proprietary information?” Butts asked. Butts added that she is not legally allowed to discuss the details of the bid request with any of the other bidders during the bid process as it may give one group an unfair advantage over the other.

Jennifer McConnell, director of court services and a member of the team that will assess the bids, said it is unusual for the county commissioners to be so involved in the bid process, especially this early in the process.

An advisory team, including Butts, McConnell, various county judicial departments and “other agencies that work outside of the system and know what the program should offer,” will make a recommendation on which bid to accept, McConnell said. The commissioners will then make a vote based on that recommendation.