3 House members demand investigation into migrant detention center no-bid deal

Three members of Congress from Florida are calling for an investigation into a no-bid, $341 million contract recently awarded to the company that runs the Homestead detention center for migrant children.

The award came as Gen. John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, was joining the advisory board of the operator’s parent company. Kelly advocated and helped carry out the president’s policy of separating children from parents upon their arrival at the border. In light of that, Kelly should not be helping oversee a company that profits from the same policy, critics have said.

Although the Homestead center is primarily for unaccompanied minors, children separated from their parents have also been detained there.

In a letter Monday to the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell demanded that the IG look into how the contract was awarded and explain the role of Kelly, if any, in engineering the deal.

“It is disconcerting that such a critical contract would be awarded without an open bid process with comprehensive vetting. We respectfully ask that your office conduct an audit of the contracting process carried out by the department,” the letter says.

From left: Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, all Florida Democrats, prepare to address reporters after being denied entrance to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children on April 8, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

“Furthermore, we want to…seek clarity on [Kelly’s] engagement and influence in the process. We find it troubling that General Kelly’s tenure in the administration led to a dramatic increase in both the number of children held at the Homestead facility and the duration of time that accompanied children are being kept in government custody.”

The letter came about two weeks after the Miami Herald shed light on a series of short-term deals awarded to Comprehensive Health Services, a subsidiary of Caliburn International, which itself is under the umbrella of the private equity firm DC Capital Partners. DC Capital’s advisory panel consists of a battery of former top national security, diplomatic and military officials. Board members are paid an annual cash retainer of $100,000, according to SEC filings.

A week after the Herald story was published, Kelly, who was Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security before becoming chief of staff, announced he had rejoined the board, on which he had served before joining the Trump administration.

That announcement came a month after Kelly was spotted entering the Homestead detention center on a golf cart. Although no announcement had been made at that time, sources have told the Herald he had already rejoined the board.

“As a matter of policy, HHS does not comment on ongoing congressional inquiries,” HHS told the Miami Herald in an email Tuesday.

Homestead Letter by on Scribd

“It is imperative that [Comprehensive Health] be held accountable to state and federal standards for child care and that the human rights and dignity of these unaccompanied children be protected,” the letter says.

The camp just outside of Homestead opened during the Obama administration but closed when the flow of migrants through Mexico ebbed. Reopened in February 2018 under the new administration, it has been shrouded in secrecy. Because it sits on federal land, Florida’s child welfare agency is barred from investigating any allegations of abuse.

In early April, Wasserman Schultz, Shalala and Mucarsel-Powell were denied same-day entry into the facility by HHS, despite a new law mandating congressional access.

The House members referenced Section 234 of bill 115-245 (the 2019 Department of Health and Human Services Appropriations Act), which was amended this year to say members of Congress can’t be prevented from “entering, for the purpose of conducting oversight, any U.S. facility used for maintaining custody of or otherwise housing unaccompanied alien children.”

HHS would not comment on the lawmakers’ request but told the Herald “To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our [children], we require a minimum two-week notification at the convenience and availability of the facility. This has been policy since 2015.”

In Monday’s letter, the House members mentioned a previous tour.

“The conditions we observed during our initial visits were unacceptable, even for a temporary detention facility. Despite these poor conditions, the department has recently offered the Homestead shelter’s operator a new contract, which will see them earn almost half a billion in taxpayer-funded dollars by the end of the year.”

A peek inside the temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Usually, government contracts are subject to policies, statutes and regulations that encourage competition to ensure proper spending of taxpayer dollars.

However, federal officials told the Herald that their decision to issue Comprehensive Health Services the new deal on a no-bid basis was due to an “unusual and compelling urgency.”

The number of migrants entering the country, including unaccompanied minors, has spiked in recent months.

HHS said in a statement: “Currently, [Comprehensive Health] is identified to be the most knowledgeable and experienced in the Homestead service requirements needed and the only source [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] has identified that is capable of meeting the urgent need to increase bed capacity at Homestead in a timely manner.”

HHS wouldn’t provide the company’s compliance reviews — report cards that state whether a vendor is meeting performance goals — because they contain “proprietary information.”

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Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.