At first glance, Montgomery County Jailer Eric Jones’ side gig as a partner in Kellwell Commissary LLC doesn’t look like a conflict.
The jail Jones was elected to manage, about 35 miles east of Lexington, runs its own canteen. It doesn’t do business with Kellwell Commissary. But a closer look reveals that his business partners are the same people who operate Kellwell Food Management, which has provided food services for the jail since Jones first became jailer in 2011.
Jones executed that contract with Kellwell Food Management without getting the county fiscal court approval required by law. In 2016, the food company’s owners launched their new commissary business. The next year, they made Jones one of its three officers.
Jones is one of at least three Kentucky jail officials who have worked second jobs for a company with financial ties to their facilities, or offered jail business to friends or relatives, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found.
The issues also extend to sales of electronic cigarettes. A joint investigation by KyCIR and ProPublica found jailers using e-cigarette sales to prop up their facilities’ revenue — or making personal profit for themselves or their associates through e-cigarette side businesses.
(Read KyCIR’s collaboration with ProPublica: “How Kentucky Jailers Profit From Selling E-Cigarettes To Inmates“)
Kellwell Commissary sells items to at least 14 Kentucky jails that responded to inquiries from KyCIR. The company also hired Jones’ daughter, he told KyCIR.
John Walling and Joseph Broadwell own both Kellwell companies. Walling did not respond to several requests for comment. Broadwell declined an interview request.
Jones, who also is the Kentucky Jailers Association’s treasurer, said in an interview that he doesn’t see any conflict between his public office and his private role with Kellwell Commissary.
“It was just a business opportunity,” said Jones, whose jailer’s salary last year was nearly $95,000. “We (jailers) have got one of the hardest jobs in Kentucky, but we’re not guaranteed another term. I’m just looking out for my future and my family’s.”
Audits Highlighted Jailer’s Business Relationship
The state conflict-of-interest law doesn’t apply to officials working for cities or counties, which are required to adopt their own codes of ethics.
But state auditors have twice called attention to Jones’ dual roles.
An audit released in November 2018 noted that the county spent more than $316,000 in fiscal year 2017 with a company owned by the jailer’s “business partner.”
The audit didn’t name the business partner or the company, and the auditor’s office has no enforcement power.
The second audit, issued last June, was much more specific: it said Jones was a partner with Broadwell in Kellwell Commissary, and the jail did more than $304,000 in business with Kellwell Food Management during the 2018 fiscal year.
The jail’s contract with Kellwell Food Management was renewed annually until last year, when KyCIR inquired about it. Finally, on May 21, Montgomery County fiscal court approved the new contract.
From 2011 through last June, the northeastern Kentucky jail paid Kellwell Food Management a total of more than $1.95 million for those meals.
Jones said he visits other Kentucky jails on behalf of Kellwell Commissary, his private employer, and that he has worn Kellwell attire to jailers’ conferences and participated in Kellwell booths touting the company’s services.
But Jones said he currently receives no salary from the company. He characterized his current arrangement with it as “more of an investment” for the future, and said he hopes to receive compensation once it is more established.
A Second Jail Employee With Kellwell Side Job
Kellwell Food Management employs at least one other county jail official.
Brent Deweese works part-time as chief deputy at the Simpson County Detention Center, on the Tennessee border. Deweese also works part-time in sales for Kellwell Food Management, which manages the jail’s kitchen.
And this isn’t the only time Deweese has taken a second job with a jail vendor.
Before joining Kellwell in 2018, Deweese worked for Southern Health Partners, a Tennessee-based company that provides medical care to Simpson County inmates and others in the region.
Deweese said he’s never been involved in either company’s business with the Simpson County jail, and that agreements between the jail and the companies were in place before he worked there.
Deweese said he didn’t use his jailer’s job and contacts to generate business for Kellwell. Although he solicits business for the company from other jails in Kentucky and the region, he doesn’t think being a deputy jailer is much of an asset.
“If you have a background in business, you know the business,” Deweese said.
Deweese declined to share his compensation from either Kellwell or Southern Health Partners. But he said both paid him more than the roughly $35,000 a year he earns as chief deputy jailer.
The Barren River Regional Ethics Board received a complaint about Deweese’s dual employment with the jail and Kellwell but dismissed it for failing to “state a claim or cause of action,” according to an opinion issued by the board in March 2019.
But Kenneth Ray, a criminal-justice consultant based in Ashland, said it’s a problem when public officials work for companies associated with their jails. “It seems like an unethical practice and a conflict of interest,” Ray said.
No-Bid Contract For Jail’s Own Staffers
In Todd County, Jailer Greg Allen handed a local company a lucrative no-bid contract in 2012.
West Kentucky Canteen Services ran the commissary for more than six years, and the company had some close ties to Allen and the jail. It was run by two of Allen’s deputies: Priscilla and Keith Wells, and their son, Randall Wells.
Allen declined an interview request. Priscilla Wells said she would pass an interview request to her son. Neither she nor her son responded to subsequent calls and emails seeking comment.
Keith Wells was still working for the jail during the 2018 fiscal year, when West Kentucky Canteen Services was paid more than $115,500 to provide food for inmates, according to a state audit released last July. By then, Priscilla Wells was no longer employed at the jail.
Todd County Jailer Jeff Penick said he learned only after defeating Greg Allen for the jailer’s job in November 2018 that the contract hadn’t been advertised for bids, and that the company was being run by people with ties to the jail. Penick said Keith Wells also no longer works at the jail.
Allen’s arrangement with West Kentucky Canteen Services “didn’t pass the sniff test,” Penick said. “I think it needed to be bid. It was a favoritism thing, an inside track type of thing.”
Penick canceled the contract last year, and put the contract out to bid. West Kentucky Canteen Services did not submit a proposal.
Contact R.G. Dunlop at email@example.com or (502) 814.6533.