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Editorial: The investigation into the St. Francis mess must get on track
St. Francis Debacle

Editorial: The investigation into the St. Francis mess must get on track

The flawed contracting process that handed St. Francis Ministries a multimillion-dollar child welfare contract deserves strong investigation by Nebraska state senators. The question at this moment is whether the Legislature’s leadership can recover after stumbling badly last week in announcing the membership of the investigative committee.

A probe of the St. Francis matter is enormously important for Nebraska government. Focused study by legislative investigators can identify flaws in the state’s contracting process and the best options for remedying them. The St. Francis proposal was woefully underbid, and the nonprofit’s two executives resigned in the wake of whistleblower revelations of financial irregularities. The state had to step up this year to approve an $147 million emergency contract just to make sure child welfare services could continue in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Nebraska must make sure that such a large-scale blunder does not happen again.

The Legislature did the right thing last month by approving a resolution from State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha to create a special committee to find the needed answers. A focused, professionally run investigation is needed to get complete information from St. Francis and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

A successful investigation can have great public value. A revamped contracting process, guided by the committee’s findings and conclusions, can better scrutinize bids, provide a fairer process for bidders and better enable the state to deliver sounder, more cost-effective contracts.

Much is at stake here for Nebraska’s long-term public interest — which is why the Legislature’s mishandling of the committee selection is so troubling, and why it’s imperative that state senators get the process back on track.

The concerns arose Friday, when the selection of the nine-member investigative committee members by the Legislative’s Executive Board became known. Incredibly, the board’s majority voted not to include Cavanaugh — even though she has studied the St. Francis matter in great detail and has a knowledge of the issue far surpassing that of anyone else in the Legislature. In addition, the Executive Board majority decided to include Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood, who voted against creating the investigative committee, and chose Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, a first-term lawmaker, over a senior member who had indicated interest in serving.

Those decisions combined to trigger understandable concern that the Executive Board majority was indulging in game-playing that will undermine the Legislature’s ability to conduct a proper investigation. The responsibility for this situation falls primarily on Speaker Mike Hilgers and Sen. Dan Hughes, chairman of the Executive Board.

Since Friday, tempers have flared but it’s imperative that the situation stabilize. Legislative leaders can serve the public interest by ensuring that Cavanaugh contributes directly to the committee’s efforts. She already is far ahead of the Legislature with her own work on the St. Francis matter. All sides need to lower the temperature and work out agreement to get the process back on track.

If senators find that consensus, the investigation has reasonable prospects for success. It’s a sound idea that the committee will have two members each from specialized committees such as Appropriations and Government Affairs. Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward has a strong understanding of state contracting. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha is an attorney knowledgeable about the subpoena process. Sen. John Arch of Omaha has proved a capable chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. All three will serve on the investigative committee.

By using properly crafted subpoenas and ably analyzing the information gained, the committee may well be able to develop contract reform legislation for the 2022 session. A key step to reaching that all-important goal will be stabilizing the situation this week. Senators have a crucial duty to get the process back on track.

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