PUBLISHING NOTE: This article is co-authored by investigative journalist Brittany Hailer, director and founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Allegheny County has paid private security consultant Joseph Garcia the full amount his company, CSAU-1, sought in a lawsuit over unpaid invoices stemming from a nearly $350,000 no-bid contract awarded in July 2021 for Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) training.
The $214,770 payment is part of a 2023 settlement agreement and equals the full amount sought by the South Carolina-based Corrections Special Applications Unit (CSAU) and the county, which had been sued in March 2022 for breach of contract and unjust enrichment.
The Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board voted in September 2021 to cancel CSAU’s contract and forbid work with Garcia in a 4-3-1 vote due to use-of-force concerns and Garcia’s unsubstantiated work history.
Garcia’s “corrections special operations” training had already attracted scrutiny elsewhere, including a 2016 investigation in New York after Garcia secured a 1.2 million dollar training contract with Rikers Island and then allegedly stopped attending meetings during the investigation.
Other than a $25,000 initial deposit, the county had not paid CSAU for partial services rendered, including seven weeks of an eight-week training program, according to CSAU’s court filings.
After the contract was banned, then-County Controller Chelsa Wagner refused to pay CSAU for any of its unpaid invoices unless the company first provided, among other things, a more detailed itemization of rental equipment and receipts, as well as Garcia’s resume.
CSAU’s demand of $214,770 broke down to $92,000 for two phases of rental equipment and $122,770 for “C-SAU Tier 1 Program,” described as a “mitigation program that addresses violent mentally ill inmates.”
Those documents were never provided to the controller by CSAU, according to interviews with Brad Korinski, former chief legal counsel to former county controller Wagner; Tracy Royston, the former interim county controller; and the current county controller, Corey O’Connor. A message left for Allegheny County solicitor George Janocsko went unanswered.
Garcia’s relationship with the county began when Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper personally contacted Garcia on June 4, 2021 to request “a cell extraction instructor course to correctional officers at the Allegheny County Jail,” according to emails obtained by Pittsburgh Independent and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Garcia met with former county manager Willy McKain on June 29, 2021 to discuss his services, according to court documents. Warden Harper gave department approval for a sole-source contract application for CSAU the same day.
The jail’s request to the county to bypass the competitive contract process stated that CSAU’s product–a “high risk corrections special operations & mitigation program”–is “one of a kind,” but in the following “market research” section, where applicants list the process by which they reached that determination, all that is written is “yes.”
As news of the jail’s training spread, Pittsburgh media and the jail oversight board scrutinized the nature and value of CSAU’s contract, and wondered if Garcia, with aggressive training methods and checkered employment history, was the man to train the jail’s SWAT-like emergency response teams.
“He looked right out of Soldier of Fortune [magazine], with his shotguns and schnauzers, his military fatigues,” said former deputy controller and JOB member, Brad Korinski. “He’s not what anyone needs at their jail, let alone Allegheny County.”
By August 2021, the Abolitionist Law Center threatened to sue County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Harper, asserting they would bear legal liability if the county did not cancel its contract with CSAU.
Appearing remotely at the regular September 2021 Jail Oversight Board meeting, Garcia listed past places of employment to the JOB. Of that list, The York Daily Record reported that one sheriff’s department had no record of Garcia’s employment and another said his position was volunteer.
Emails obtained by Pittsburgh Independent and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reveal that Warden Harper contacted Garcia on August 21, 2021, to say he was “getting a lot of heat” for CSAU. Garcia previously connected Harper to his colleague, Jerry Baldwin, described by Garcia in an email as “extremely brilliant in public relations,” to assist with messaging.
Baldwin later represented CSAU as its public information officer at a special September JOB meeting to review the CSAU contract. The emails indicate that Garcia shared Harper’s prepared statements justifying the CSAU contract with Baldwin prior to meetings with President Judge Kimberly Clark and the Jail Oversight Board.
At that special September session, the board voted to ban Garcia and his company from continuing training at the jail.
“None of the regular officers knew what they were training,” said Allegheny County Jail corrections officers union president Brian Englert. “This guy who you have training our team believes our inmates are the enemy. If I heard an officer say ‘all these inmates are my enemy,’ I would tell them to please quit because someone is going to get hurt. The inmates are not your enemy.”
Despite these questions and the vote to ban Garcia, the county settled in 2023.
Since the Allegheny County ban with CSAU went into effect, a group of 49 currently and formerly incarcerated persons sued York County and Garcia in December 2021 alleged C-SAU training created a toxic prison environment and terrorized the incarcerated. The U.S. district court issued a default judgment against Garcia after his refusal to appear in court. The award for potential damages in that case has not been decided.
County spokesperson, Amie Downs, said that the county’s settlement agreement was reached after discussions with legal and the county controller’s office and that she would not otherwise comment, other than to say that, “the suit was based on nonpayment of invoices by the Controller’s office, a ministerial function.”
O’Connor said that the decision was made by the county’s law department and administration, and that his office was not part of settlement discussions. He said once a settlement is reached by the legal department, it is the duty of the controller to process said settlement, otherwise he risks being held in contempt and potentially costing taxpayers more money by taking it to trial.
“Lawyers, and people that do those types of things, thought that this was a fair settlement and that the taxpayer saved money, is what I was told,” said O’Connor.
In their court filings, Allegheny County asserted that the value of services performed by Garcia were worth “far less” than what they paid to settle.
Patrick K. Cavanaugh, counsel of record for CSAU’s lawsuit, declined to comment. Garcia did not immediately respond to emails offering opportunity to comment.
“I don’t know how you go through the exercise of having a lawsuit, and come out paying every dime and end up with no more information,” said Korinski.
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.