Putting pen to paper, it’s not hard to see how a local office supply company has racked up $1.7 million in business with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office since Hurricane Katrina.
Metro Business Supplies won the bid to become the primary purveyor of supplies to the Sheriff’s Office with a thrifty price list that featured, among other low-cost items, 12-packs of economy pens at 6 cents per pen. But in February 2012, Metro delivered $559.44 of Uni-ball pens priced at $2.59 apiece.
Likewise, staplers on a 2007 bid sheet were priced at $3.75. More recently, Metro has delivered different staplers priced at $22.99.
And the company isn’t selling just the paper clips, folders, file cabinets and other routine items listed on bid sheets from 2006 and 2007. Last year, Metro also supplied the jail with Sony cameras, a shredder, wall-mounted maps, a DeLonghi coffee maker, tubs of butterscotch candies and more. Some of these items’ prices exceed online or retail prices available to shoppers throughout the New Orleans area.
You might think Metro knows someone in the Sheriff’s Office; you’d be right. The man at Metro who helped land the account is the son-in-law of the No. 2 person in the Sheriff’s Office.
Metro, a family-run, Metairie-based company, is owned by Raymond Schlaudecker. His brother, Richard, is listed on the company’s website as a business consultant — though his brother says he left the company two years ago.
Richard Schlaudecker is married to Christina Ursin-Schlaudecker, daughter of Gerald Ursin, chief deputy at the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. They were married on April 13, 2007, according to their marriage certificate. Mortgage documents obtained by The Lens indicate that they purchased a Lakeview property together in late 2006.
Documents indicate that from late 2006 through mid-2007, Richard Schlaudecker was directly involved in the company’s effort to secure what would become a long-term deal to sell office supplies to the parish prison complex. His name appears on Metro’s quote sheets and other correspondence between the company and the Sheriff’s Office.
Ursin, a former high-ranking New Orleans police officer, was hired at the jail in May 2008 to run the new Intake and Processing Center. That year, Metro’s billings grew to $400,000 — eight times more than the second-largest vendor of such products.
Now Ursin is second-in-command to Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Ursin put in the order requesting over 200 of those $2.59 Uni-ball pens in February 2012. The pricey pens are for the use of Orleans Parish prison staff, said Gusman spokesman Marc Ehrhardt.
A review of state campaign records puts the Schlaudeckers’ contributions in the upper echelon of Gusman supporters. Between 2006 and 2010, the sheriff collected $31,250 in contributions from Metro Business Supplies, an affiliated company called Metro Business Services and the Schlaudecker brothers.
Promotional materials bluntly state that Metro has leveraged family connections to its benefit since it set up shop in 2002:
Metro was originally founded and created to serve the Legal community with general office supplies, Office Furniture and specialty legal products for both Law Firms and Litigation Reproduction Facilities. With rapid acceptance in this area, Metro was grateful to receive numerous referrals from clients to see friends, family and associates in other various professions.
In November 2006, a trio of office supply companies received price sheets from John Sens, the former director of purchasing for the Sheriff’s Office.
Sens is the brother of Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens, a close friend and ally of Gusman. Judge Sens’ wife works for the Sheriff’s Office, and Gusman’s wife works in Judge Sens’ court, an arrangement criticized by the city’s Inspector General.
The sheets listed dozens of basic office items and asked the companies to provide the Sheriff’s Office with prices. Records show that Metro already had been supplying the jail with office supplies for at least a year.
Three companies — Metro, Dameron Pierson and DKI Office Furniture & Supplies— sent price sheets to the jail.
The sheet invited prices on 66 items. Metro bid lowest on 40 items; DKI offered the lowest prices on 18.
A number of Metro’s bids were lower by a penny or a few cents from what DKI offered. For example, DKI offered a two-drawer, letter-size file cabinet for $104.41. Metro’s price: $104.40.
Metro won the bid.
The Sheriff’s Office conducted another round of bidding the following April. Records show that John Sens sent bid sheets to at least a half-dozen office-supply companies that expressed interest.
Ehrhardt said that the jail sought bids that April in part to invite competition from companies that had been recovering from Katrina during the previous round. He added that the Sheriff’s Office did a third round of bidding after one company complained that it hadn’t had a chance to participate.
According to documents, four bids were considered: Metro, GBP Direct, Main Office Supply and Dameron Pierson.
A cover letter sent by the purchasing office noted that bids would be considered on an item-by-item basis. It further stipulated that the winning bidder would have the office supply business for six months.
Six years later, the winning firm, Metro Business Supplies, remains the primary supplier of the office supplies at the Orleans Parish jail — having billed the jail for about $1.7 million since 2006, according to invoices reviewed by The Lens.
Main Office Supply, the second-largest vendor of such products, has done about $375,000 in business with the Sheriff’s Office since 2006.
Business booms, jail shrinks
Metro’s annual billings peaked in 2008 at $398,778. Ehrhardt attributed this spike in billings, which carried into 2009, to supplies for the new Intake and Processing Center.
Ursin started to oversee the Intake and Processing Center in May 2008. “Regardless of when Chief Ursin became commander of the IPC,” Ehrhardt said, “he had no responsibility for purchasing, which was done through another OPSO department and according to all public bid laws.”
Ehrhardt also said that when the criminal and civil divisions of the Sheriff’s Office merged in 2010, Metro started to supply the civil division with most of its office supplies. The company billed the Sheriff’s Office for $257,000 that year.
But Gusman was closing other facilities during that time, and the overall prisoner population was dropping, Ehrhardt said. Over time, that led to a reduction in what the jail ordered and stockpiled in its warehouse, he said. He added that waste — for example, rubber bands melted in the hot warehouse — also played a role in the scaling down of office supply purchases.
It remains to be seen who will provide the office supplies to the jail facilities now going up along Interstate 10.
In 2011, Metro’s invoices totaled $90,162. In 2012, invoices were $103,287. That year, Main’s $97,821 in billings finally caught up to Metro’s.
Gusman moved John Sens from the purchasing office last June as a grand jury was empaneled to sort through questions swirling around unrelated contracting activity at the jail in the aftermath of Katrina. No one has been charged in that investigation.
The Sheriff’s Office has not produced a contract between it and Metro. Craig Frosch, an attorney with the firm Usry, Weeks & Matthews, which handles public-records requests for Gusman, cited state law that says public entities are not required to have contracts to purchase materials and supplies.
The 2007 bid worksheet is the only document establishing the seven-year business relationship. Frosch said the Sheriff’s Office has “not located any additional contract or bid documents.”
In the meantime, the spirit of thrift that infused the 2006 Metro Business price list has been abandoned, though Warehouse Director Capt. Mary Goodwin strongly denies it.
Purchasing system defended
Goodwin and Ehrhardt took pains during a recent interview at the prison’s warehouse to describe the process by which products are ordered. Goodwin, a longtime employee at the jail, defended these practices, which she said starts with a check of state contract prices.
Goodwin also said that she typically solicits two or three prices on small-ticket items even though she isn’t legally required to do so. Moreover, she does not approve every request by jail staffers, and even before orders reach her desk, they must be approved by other commanders in the jail hierarchy. Depending on the price of an item, she said those approvals can go all the way up to Gusman’s desk.
“I do not primarily use Metro,” Goodwin said, “and I take offense to that.” She rattled off several companies that she said had sold office supplies to the Orleans Parish jail: “DKI, Dameron Pierson, Office Depot, Metro, GBD Direct, Future Image” and others.
However, some of those companies were not included on a list of state-approved vendors that had sold office and business supplies, as well as janitorial and other products, to the jail since 2006.
“Metro has conducted a good amount of business with the OPSO,” said Ehrhardt in an email, “but these other companies have conducted various levels of business with the dept. too.”
Metro has done more than four times as much business as any of the other office supply companies on the list.
Goodwin was adamant about the integrity of the bidding process in place at the jail. She said her office puts out new requests for proposals every four months. Goodwin said bidding opportunities for office supplies are lumped into foodstuff bids, which comprise the majority of warehouse purchases, but she didn’t provide any examples.
“I have never done an office-supply specific bid,” said Goodwin, a licensed dietitian who assumed her post as warehouse director last year.
The Lens asked Goodwin if spending $2.59 per pen was a wise use of limited jail dollars. Goodwin repeated her contention that the bidding process is fair and open to any approved vendor.
“I fight very hard to make sure everyone is given a chance,” she said.
She repeatedly rejected comparisons between the bid tally sheets in 2006 and 2007 and the 2012 invoices. “Nothing is the same price as it was in 2006,” she said.
According to Frosch, the arrangement was for “Metro to supply the listed items on an as-needed basis for the bid prices that were quoted. Other items that were not on the list may have been purchased by the Sheriff’s Office as stand-alone items not subject to bid requirements.”
Through Ehrhardt, Gusman and Ursin declined to comment on the business relationship between Metro and the Sheriff’s Office.
Because of the fiscal crunch at the jail, Goodwin said, the warehouse now holds about $400,000 worth of food and supplies, compared to up to $1.1 million before. About $8,000 worth of that is office supplies, and she showed The Lens the warehouse where they are stored. The jail is getting “greener” and using less paper, she noted, owing to the computerized procurement system now in use.
Asked about the $22.99 staplers, Goodwin said that they were high-quality. Ehrhardt said the jail stopped buying the cheaper ones from Metro after they kept breaking.
“The bid list is totally different from 2006,” Goodwin said, again, as she produced one of the metal staplers and extolled its sturdiness.
The Lens also asked about the 2012 purchase from Metro of a Sony Cybershot camera. Metro charged the jail $259.99 for the item; it lists for $249.99 and is readily available for less.
Goodwin said such comparisons were unfair and noted that a number of other factors — including the rapid fulfillment of an order — figured in her choice of vendors, even if it meant paying higher prices.
“My responsibility is to make the best possible judgment for every penny that goes through here,” she said. “They have to be an approved product and an approved vendor.”
The Lens was not able to reach Richard Schlaudecker to speak about Metro’s business with the jail, but Raymond Schlaudecker said his firm is not favored at the Orleans Parish jail.
Asked whether he had a current contract with the Sheriff’s Office, Schlaudecker said: “I don’t have any comment to make. I’m not a part of whatever’s going on, don’t want to be a part of what’s going on down there.”
As for the family tie to Chief Deputy Ursin, Schlaudecker said, “I’m not related to Gerald Ursin. That’s my brother, and what Jerry Ursin does at the criminal Sheriff’s Office, I have no idea. I have no contact with the gentleman.”
He added that his brother had been a sales representative for Metro and described his role as that of a “go-fer,” before adding that he’d left the company “probably two years ago.” Nevertheless, he is still listed as a business consultant on the company’s website.
Raymond Schlaudecker went on to say that he’s had “the contract for 8 or 10 years.” He added that it was “unfortunate and disheartening” that his business was under scrutiny.
“I’m an office supply guy,” he said. “I do my job. They get great pricing and great service.”
Schlaudecker also took issue with the $31,250 in contributions to Gusman from his family and related businesses. “I don’t know where you are getting that information from,” he said.
Correction: This story originally stated that Metro does not supply the jail with paper products, but it does supply some types of paper, such as Post-it’s and notebooks.