A Chartwells meal served in 2015 at Payne Elementary School
A Chartwells meal served in 2015 at Payne Elementary School Credit: Courtesy parent of Payne Elementary student

A citizens group called the D.C. School Food Project has requested that the D.C. Bureau of Ethics and Government Accountability conduct an official investigation into the D.C. Public Schools food service procurement process, according to a letter obtained by City Paper.

The parent and community group was organized five years ago as a formal body within the DCPS Office of Food and Nutrition Services, which was at the center of a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by its former director, Jeffrey Mills, who settled with the city in 2014. He filed a whistleblower lawsuit against current food vendor Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality Group that resulted in a $19.4 million settlement on behalf of the city.

The parents group also is concerned that the food services procurement process, originated in 2015, specified that awards would be made in March 2016, and that their requests for status of the process have gone unanswered since April. “This delay concerns us and, because DCPS staff will not provide information, we request an investigation into whether any vendors—including those that have bid on the contract and those that have not—have been contacted in this period in regard to the status of the awards,” the group writes. “We wonder too about the lack of transparency in many aspects of the solicitation process, which does not inspire confidence given the multi-million-dollar losses DCPS has incurred under Chartwells-Thompson’s contract; the recent wrongful termination and whistleblower suits; and the lack of accountability among remaining DCPS employees and offices.”

The request that BEGA open an investigation into the food service procurement process was prompted by a recent Associated Press report that exposed DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s solicitation of a $100,000 charitable donation from Warren Thompson of Thompson Hospitality Group to a Kennedy Center gala honoring teachers and organized by the D.C. Public Education Fund, a nonprofit group invested in reforming DCPS. (Thompson’s firm made two $25,000 donations instead, AP reported.)

Sodexo, a bidder in the current procurement process for the food services contract that begins with the 2016-17 school year, also has contributed to the gala in recent years, and is widely expected to be the primary winner of the contract, over a short list of competitors that includes Mills’ firm, Genuine Foods. D.C. Central Kitchen, a current food services provider, and Revolution Foods are expected to serve a limited number of schools.

City Paper recently reported that Sodexo and Revolution Foods submitted a joint bid in what is supposed to be a closed solicitation process—meaning that competitors submit blind bids to a review panel approved by food services director Robert Jaber, a former Chartwells executive. (Jaber also serves on the panel, according to sources familiar with the process.) Ordinarily, that panel would receive bids, interview bidders, consider Best and Final Offers, and review them before announcing any awards. For this contract, bidders were instructed to bid on school “clusters” of up to 10 schools, according to sources familiar with the process.

However, numerous sources within the school food services sector say that Sodexo has already entered into talks with DCPS, which at the same time is conducting talks with Chartwells, which is not a bidder for the 2016-17 contract, in the event a deal with Sodexo falls through. Both companies, behemoth multinational corporations, have serious stains on their record, such as fraud, waste, and discrimination settlements—in addition to the 2015 Chartwells settlement with the city, in which it admitted no liability over charges of fraudulent billings, price gouging, and unhealthy food.

Sources familiar with the matter say DCPS has notified D.C. Central Kitchen that it has been selected as a contractor for one “cluster,” which is consistent with its current arrangement in terms of number of schools it serves. Mills would not confirm whether his company has been notified of any awards.

Tommy Ratliff, president of Teamsters Local 639, which represents cafeteria workers employed by Chartwells, says that his members are in a holding pattern until an official award is announced and a contract is put in place, and that Chartwells has put his members on notice that they will end food services on June 16.  Members who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity say they are concerned about continuing to receive their pay and benefits through Oct. 16, when their collective bargaining agreement with Chartwells expires, not to mention the open-ended question of who they will be working for after that.

Some members fear that Sodexo and Chartwells are taking turns squeezing DCPS for concessions by threatening to walk away from the whole mess, which has become a headache for DCPS and the city’s elected officials. Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the education committee, told his colleagues just this week that the Office of the Attorney General is reviewing the contract for legal sufficiency. However, OAG says in an email, “OAG has not received a new DCPS food-service contract to review for legal sufficiency. Generally speaking, we review such contracts once they are finalized by the negotiating parties, but before they are presented to the Council for approval.” Grosso’s office did not respond to written inquiries.

The School Food Project’s letter to Darren Sobin, director of government ethics for BEGA, expresses concerns “that money changed hands between DCPS and Chartwells, which appears to still be in the picture,” explaining that “the reason for our concern stems from the recent lawsuits that have implicated both DCPS and…Chartwells-Thompson, in fraudulent and improper activities.” The letter, signed by 19 DCPS parents, says that Henderson’s solicitation of a donation from Chartwells “appears to us to be an ethics violation. We believe your office may be in a better position to fully investigate any meetings, solicitations, or exchanges of money or other goods—through e-mail, in person, or by any other means—between agents of DCPS and food service vendors.”