State politicians own part of tech company involved with Fulton jail contract

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat walks up stairs in a corridor of Fulton County Jail on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat walks up stairs in a corridor of Fulton County Jail on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Plans for a new multibillion dollar facility on the 35 acre campus are underway. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Since the Fulton County commission revoked a multi-million-dollar contract between the sheriff’s office and an Alpharetta technology company for inmate health monitoring wristbands at the troubled Rice Street jail, more information has emerged about the company’s ownership and its relationship to Sheriff Patrick Labat.

Talitrix, founded in 2020, is chaired by state Rep. Todd Jones, R-Cumming, and several other legislators have ownership stakes in the company, according to financial disclosures filed with the state.

Some of those legislators made contributions to Labat’s campaign for sheriff, and the company has received a series of no-bid contracts with the sheriff’s office, documents show.

Jones said he has been Talitrix board chair since the company began, but wouldn’t disclose his investment or anyone else’s stake in the firm. As a private company, Talitrix doesn’t have to disclose who owns it and shareholder confidentiality is in its operating agreement, he said.

Jones said he consulted the General Assembly’s legislative counsel three years ago on ethical rules Talitrix would have to follow. They require disclosure of any business done with the state, but deals with counties and cities are exempt, according to Jones.

“That’s the net of what our responsibilities are,” said Jones, who added that the intention from the start was the company’s investors would have “no, none, zero” contact with customers.

Jones’ disclosure says he owns more than 5% of Talitrix, with a value of more than $5,000. Likewise, state Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, lists himself as an investor in three iterations of the company: Talitrix Georgia LLC, Talitrix Holding LLC and Talitrix LLC, with a stake of more than $5,000 in each. State Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, also shows ownership interest in Talitrix of more than 5% and more than $5,000 in value.

“I have not had any business contact with Patrick Labat,” Dolezal said. “I am not aware the daily actives of the company as I am a passive investor.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for an interview, before eventually referring inquiries to Labat’s campaign. The campaign then did not respond to questions for this story.

Justin Hawkins, Talitrix CEO and board member, is a former chair of the Forsyth County Republican Party and an unsuccessful candidate in 2022 for a state House seat. Micah Gravley, a Republican state representative from 2013 to the start of 2023, joined Talitrix after he left the legislature as its vice president of business development.

Micah Garvey, Vice President of Business Development at Talitrix shows the inmate wristband (left) and the wristbands for those out of jail (right) on Friday, November 17, 2023. The wristband, which is a replacement for ankle montiors, provides biometric monitoring as well as live-time tracking for inmates as well as those on probation. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

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Credit: NATRICE MILLER

County commissioners on Oct. 18 rescinded the $2.1 million they had approved in April for a deal between Labat and Talitrix, citing a list of concerns. Commissioners said they were disturbed Labat didn’t disclose that he already had a months-old deal with Talitrix; that state legislators own part of the company; and that of the 1,000 promised wristbands only 15 were in use six months after the allocation.

“There’s no prohibition or restriction of a public official owning an interest in a public or private corporation,” Commission Chair Robb Pitts said. “At some point, though, there should be a disclosure required — particularly if you’re seeking a contract with a government entity.”

Commissioners also questioned why the contract, on which Labat was the sole decision-maker, wasn’t put out for bid. And Commissioner Bob Ellis noted multiple donations from Talitrix executives, including legislators, to Labat’s campaign.

Government ethicists say none of those factors make Labat’s deal illegal, but they do raise potential conflicts of interest and just don’t look good.

“It’s terrible optics,” said Dan Franklin, associate professor emeritus of political science at Georgia State University. “Not only is it terrible optics, it’s terrible period.”

Jones defends the contract, saying he and Talitrix comply with all state ethics rules and don’t have to disclose more than they already have.

The AJC obtained agreements between the sheriff’s office and Talitrix through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The first, dated Sept. 27, 2021, is a three-year “master monitoring subscription agreement” at the Union City jail annex with a maximum value of $1.63 million. It was subsequently amended to add the Alpharetta jail.

It says Talitrix’s devices would track the location of inmates and officers to within 10 feet, and gather “certain biometric data” on inmates — temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels. The wristbands themselves cost $130 each, according to the agreements. A related document, signed Jan. 20, lists costs as $565,000 remaining unpaid from the first agreement, plus $300,000 for software and support.

Sheriff’s office General Counsel Amelia Joiner told Fulton County commissioners Talitrix has been paid a total of $435,000 for the work. She said every inmate in the Union City jail annex wore a wristband for several months, but those inmates moved in September 2022 to Atlanta City Detention Center. The latter facility didn’t have the infrastructure to track the wristbands, so the second agreement put them on about 50 county inmates held in the Alpharetta jail, she said.

A third agreement, signed April 21 for the main Rice Street jail, is a five-year deal for 1,000 wristbands. It asks for nearly $1.5 million immediately for installation, then $625,000 a year for software and support to be paid in four phases as the system rolls out to various parts of the jail.

That was soon amended to seek an immediate payment of $733,687, with the other $737,562 to be paid on installation and delivery of 1,000 wristbands. Other costs remained the same.

On April 26, Talitrix was paid $733,687 out of the county funding commissioners approved April 19. Pitts said he doesn’t think there is any way to get that money back, but the county won’t pay any more.

The plan was to put wristbands on 425 Fulton jail inmates, with another 425 bands being charged, repaired or cleaned, and another 150 in reserve for loss or damage, Gravley said. At Rice Street, infrastructure was installed in the mental health unit in three weeks while it was cleared out during the investigation of the September 2022 death of Lashawn Thompson.

“Talitrix has not made one dime of profit off the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office,” Hawkins said. “We are completely underwater.”

State elected officials’ involvement in Talitrix, either as investors or executives, is not problematic to Ellis. But the lack of bidding on a contract, and Labat’s sole authorization of it, is.

Views of Talitrix inmate-monitoring wristbands shown on Friday, November 17, 2023. The wristband, which is a replacement for ankle monitors, provides biometric monitoring as well as live-time tracking for inmates as well as those on probation. (Natrice Miller/ Natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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Campaign contributions

Joiner said the sheriff, as a constitutional officer, doesn’t have to go through the same competitive purchasing process as the county. It’s likely Talitrix would be the only qualified bidder anyway, she said.

Georgia doesn’t have firm regulations on conflicts of interest in bidding, said Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. But this does look like a conflict, and Labat has been scrutinized before for lack of campaign disclosure, she said.

“Overall, this activity is legal; however, I would think that a person in this position would want to lead with a higher standard and stay clear of potential pay-to play-politics and the ‘Atlanta Way,’” Dennis said.

State campaign finance records show Talitrix, its investors or employees, and other entities owned by those people gave Labat’s campaign $34,800 between Nov. 24, 2020 — three weeks after Labat’s election — and July 25, 2022.

On March 10, Talitrix bought Fulton County’s ankle-monitor supplier, A&A All County Monitoring. Its owner Charles Shaw — retained by Talitrix — and companies associated with him gave Labat’s campaign thousands before that acquisition, and $6,000 after Talitrix bought A&A, according to finance records.

Jones and his son Colton — who also works at Talitrix — each gave $1,000 to Labat’s campaign fund in April 2022, and Jones’ wife Tracey gave $2,800 in November 2020. Another of Jones’ companies, TJ Ventures, donated $2,800 to Labat in November 2020 as well.

Jones defended the donations as allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I truly believe in SCOTUS’s opinion around political contributions and First Amendment rights,” Jones said.

Franklin said it’s “troubling” when contractors donate to politicians, but so long as the money is used for campaigning and not for “personal side benefits,” it’s not only legal but considered normal. But it’s hard to avoid bias in that situation, he said.

While contributions from Talitrix, its personnel and associates to Labat’s campaign may be perfectly legal, it still “raises significant ethical concerns,” Ellis said.

“It gets really close to pay-to play-when there is a hidden contract that’s entered into by an elected official with an organization that he has received campaign contributions from,” he said.

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