Saint Francis Hearing Raises Questions of Responsibility

Oct. 8, 2021, midnight ·

Saint Francis investigative commitee
Senators investigating the Saint Francis contract listen to testimony Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Listen To This Story

In a hearing Friday, Nebraska officials discussed how the state awarded a controversial contract to Saint Francis Ministries for child welfare services, amid different interpretations over who was responsible.

In 2019, the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketts awarded Saint Francis Ministries of Kansas a contract to handle child welfare case management services in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. The contract was worth $197 million for 5 years, a rate that was 40 percent less than the previous contractor, PromiseShip, was being paid. Earlier this year, after Saint Francis said it was running out of money, the state signed a new, emergency contract to pay Saint Francis almost $150 million for two years, bringing its cost above the PromiseShip bid.

Friday, Marnie Jensen, a lawyer for the committee investigating the contract, asked Danette Smith, CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services or DHHS, about her understanding of how Saint Francis original bid could be so much lower. Smith said each bidder used their own technical specifications.

“At that point there was no thought or belief that Saint Francis just could not do the job. That was the number that they put in the bid and we believed that they could do the work,” Smith said.

Top Saint Francis officials subsequently resigned following a whistleblower’s allegations of financial misconduct.

DHHS’s Bo Botelo said department officials at the time indicated Saint Francis’s proposed lower costs were similar to what DHHS costs were to provide the same services in the rest of the state. But Jensen said a consultant’s study at the time found Promiseship’s higher costs were similar to the state’s.

One factor in Saint Francis’s low bid was that it initially proposed each case manager would handle 25 cases. But state law limits managers to no more than 17. Asked about that, Bothelo said Saint Francis had promised to adhere to all applicable laws and regulations. Saint Francis still has not met the 17:1 requirement, and has been at least temporarily barred from taking on new cases.

Details of the contract proposed in 2019 were reviewed by the Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, before the contract was approved by the Department of Administrative Services, or DAS. Friday, the directors of the two agencies gave different answers about who bore ultimate responsibility.

“Where did the buck stop with respect to the decision? Was it DHHS or DAS?” Jensen asked.

“The final decision rests with DAS. It was DHHS that made the recommendation to them,” Smith said.

DAS Director Jason Jackson said it was a shared responsibility, with each agency having veto power.

“I don’t think you would want a process where DAS procurement professionals would overrule the judgment of subject matter experts in the agency about what they’re buying and what they’re paying for and ultimately the program they’re responsible for delivering,” Jackson said.

William Clark, interim president and CEO of Saint Francis Ministries, was not involved in bidding process. Clark said the bid was bad, but not malicious.

“Clearly, there were errors in judgment by past senior leadership in the organization. However the Saint Francis of today cannot correct what transpired more than two years ago in the bidding process. Saint Francis have moved forward from this topic,” Clark said.

The oversight committee is supposed to submit a report on the contract controversy to the Legislature by Dec. 15.