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Chicken Cordon Bleu, Key Lime Pie and Lump Crab — Taxpayers Subsidizing Dining For Deputies

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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Investigator Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4)- It sounds like the offerings of a five star restaurant: roast beef, soufflés, crab meat and key lime pies. Those are just some of the menu items gobbled up in the last two years by hungry Denver Sheriff Deputies, staff and administrators.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fine dining has been subsidized by Denver taxpayers.

“It’s excellent, it’s top of the line’, said one former kitchen worker who prepared food for deputies in what are called Officers Mess or OMs at the Denver County Jail and downtown Denver detention facility.

“I remember half a wheel of smoked gouda cheese that was $10 to $20 a pound, and we would get 20 to 30 pounds of it. It seems a little ridiculous but yes we did,” said the former worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.

CBS4 was able to obtain the receipt and verify the cheese purchase alluded to by the worker.

Another former kitchen worker told CBS4, “It’s ridiculous. I think the public ought to be incensed.”

The Denver Sheriff’s Department feeds 2,100 inmates each day at the County jail on Smith Road and the downtown Denver detention center. But along with inmate meals, the department also feeds deputies, administrators and employees who are not able to leave the jails for meals.

They are allowed to bring their own food to work or can elect to pay about $1 per day to eat food prepared for them.

Denver Undersheriff Gary Wilson refused to discuss the food expenditures with CBS4 and refused to allow CBS4 to videotape any dining facilities, citing ‘security concerns’.

”They don’t want you in there because they don’t want you to see it,” said one of the former food workers. “They don’t want you to see what they’re eating.”

In a prepared statement emailed to CBS4, Wilson wrote, “The food that is prepared and available for staff is the same basic type of food that is prepared to for jail inmates. There are some added items such as fruit, cookie and salad items. On occasion, the staff may have an additional entree choice to eat from as well.”

But both former jail workers, along with numerous former and current deputies and employees scoffed at Wilson’s assessment.

“Absolutely not. That is a very big lie. The officer’s mess could not be more different than the inmate meal. We serve everything fresh in the officer’s mess and everything was quality meat, vegetables and starches. Everything that went into the OM was so much better than an inmate meal,” said one worker.

The OM at the county jail on Smith road is open from 5:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. A typical breakfast includes items like waffles or pancakes, bacon, hash browns, two fresh egg entrees like omelets and scrambled eggs, toast, potatoes, pancakes, fresh butter, pastries, cinnamon rolls, fresh fruit, yogurt, granola, hot and cold cereal and juices, according to employees.
Lunch and dinner include hot entrees like pork chops, pasta, roast sliced turkey breast or pork loin stuffed with fontina cheese. Deputies can also choose from a fresh 20 item salad bar and a dessert buffet.

“All the desserts you would want,” said one of the workers. ”A great amount of cakes and cookies, top of the line cakes and puddings. It wasn’t rare at all to have a strawberry cheesecake or chocolate cream pie or coconut cream pie. We had all of it. I think it matches some of the finer restaurants in town when it comes to food.”

CBS4 requested and obtained two years worth of food purchases for the officer’s mess which verified what kitchen workers and deputies said. Invoices showed tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on gourmet foods like fresh lump crab, scallops and cases of shrimp, steak and chicken cordon bleu, salmon and ribs.

Earlier this year the department spent $429 for a Panini grill. Last October, workers were sent out to buy “salmon for the om… corn beef and top round” that cost $1,981.02.

Another 2011 invoice sent to the downtown Denver detention center billed $135.72 for chicken cordon bleu. American Produce billed the Denver jail in May of last year for cases of fresh strawberries, blueberries, exotic kiwi fruit and avocados at $1 apiece.

Deputies are asked to pay $1 per day for the dining, and can eat as many meals and as much as they want during their shifts. Multiple employees told CBS4 they have only been paying $1 per day for the all you can eat buffets for at least 10 years, despite escalating food costs, increasing costs for preparing staff meals, and widening budget deficits for the City of Denver.

“It’s crazy,” said one of the former kitchen workers. “They could go back for thirds or fourths if they wanted- there was nothing restricting them from as many plates as they wanted. A deputy doesn’t eat just once; there are always seconds or thirds.”

A second kitchen worker said, “You can eat till your arms get tired or your jaw hurts.”

In 2011, the Sheriffs Department said employees paid a total of $60,758 for staff meals, but figures obtained by CBS4 indicate those meals likely cost taxpayers well over $200,000 per year.

“We’re paying for it and they’re eating on our dime and it should stop,” said one of the food service workers.

Denis Berckfeldt, a spokesman for the Denver Auditor’s Office, said, “Some of us would look at that and say no, I don’t think it’s an appropriate amount to be paying for three meals a day.”

Berckfeldt reviewed the CBS4 findings saying,”we might suggest this is probably inappropriate. What this is costing taxpayers is out of line- the dollar amounts are significant. As a taxpayer I’ve got a real serious problem with it. Nobody else in Denver is being fed that way, it seems an unreasonable expense.”

Berckfeldt said he was deeply concerned with some of the other issues raised by the food service workers- that many deputies weren’t even paying the $1 a day due to a lack of controls, that food pilferage was rampant, and that numbers were being fabricated to make it appear food costs were being kept low.

“All the times deputies would bring their own ‘to go ‘containers in to load up and take home while they’re leaving,” said one of the food service employees. “Not a day went by we didn’t have to refill a container due to deputies stealing so much.”

He recalled specific incidents of deputies loading up on burritos, bacon, cookies and fruit to take home.

Multiple employees verified the pilferage and also verified that many sheriff’s department employees were eating in the OMs, even though they hadn’t paid the $1 per day fee.

“Nobody checks into it, nobody cares, there’s no accountability, there’s no controls anywhere,” said one of the former workers.

Other employees confirmed the lack of control and deputies eating for free.

In its official report, the sheriff’s department reported serving 188,010 staff meals in 2011. The department says the food costs for those meals were only between .74 and .78 cents per meal, with about 400 staff members being fed each day.

But one of the former kitchen workers says those numbers are wildly inaccurate. He said there was enormous pressure on kitchen workers to keep food costs low, so staff members intentionally inflated the number of deputies who were eating.

“We exaggerated the numbers so it looked good for us. We had to maintain a certain cost so what we would do is if 30 or 40 deputies ate we would put down 96. We would bump it up because we would have to, otherwise they would say, ‘Why is the food cost so high?’ We figured out how to keep it low, we absolutely had to.”

Other sheriff’s departments and jails surveyed by CBS4 make employees pay for each meal or item they eat and do not allow unlimited refills.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has an officers dining hall where food is prepared by the same vendor who prepares food for inmates. Staff members can buy low cost meals, typically costing around $3.

“The service is a benefit to employees,”said Sheriff Ted Mink,”But they have to pay for it. It’s not out of taxpayer’s money.”

It’s the same situation at the Arapahoe County Jail. The vendor who cooks for inmates also makes food that staff can buy, and again, it costs several dollars per meal, no free refills and no cost to taxpayers.

The Colorado Department of Corrections says its on duty staff members can buy meals for $2. If they are off duty , the cost is $4 per meal and it’s the same food prepared for inmates according to the DOC.

“I think we probably want to take a look at this,” said Denis Berckfeldt of the Auditor’s Office.

Additional Resources: Several typical bills for staff, a statement from the Denver Director of Corrections and the department’s official employee meal policy.

- Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com

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