LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's corrections director faced blistering criticism Thursday for spending more than $54,000 on foreign-made lethal injection drugs the state hasn't received because the federal government says their import is illegal.
Members of a legislative oversight committee grilled Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes over the purchase, saying he approved the prepayment without following typical procedures or taking steps to ensure the state could recover the money.
Frakes' testimony during a wide-ranging hearing on the troubled state prison system offered new details about Nebraska's efforts to obtain execution drugs amid a nationwide shortage.
The corrections director agreed to buy sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide from Chris Harris, a distributor in India who contacted him in April, as lawmakers were debating whether to abolish the death penalty. Both drugs are required in Nebraska's three-drug lethal injection protocol.
Lawmakers repeatedly questioned Frakes about whom he consulted before making the purchase, and whether he spoke with Gov. Pete Ricketts. Frakes responded by saying he couldn't remember whether the governor or others were in meetings during which the drugs were discussed.
The drugs were never delivered because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said their import is illegal. Attempts to ship the drugs in August via FedEx were thwarted because the transport company said it lacked the required paperwork required to travel internationally.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said he was concerned that the state had no way to recoup the tax money paid to Harris.
"I'm not trying to get you to say that you're never going to get the drugs," Mello told Frakes. "I know you're never going to get those drugs."
Frakes told lawmakers that he spoke with Harris last week and was waiting for him to complete the necessary paperwork and registration to try shipping the drugs again.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said the hearing marked a "sad day" because lawmakers had supported Frakes after Ricketts appointed him in January. Two previous corrections directors left their positions amid criticism that the department was mismanaged.
"We thought you were going to be a breath of fresh air that we could trust," he said, adding later: "I'd bet you that no one in this room believes you."
Ricketts, who supports capital punishment, announced the purchase of the drugs shortly before lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May despite his veto. Death penalty supporters responded with a statewide petition drive that successfully suspended the repeal law until voters decide whether to keep the punishment in November 2016.
Members of the oversight committee who questioned Frakes all voted to repeal the death penalty.
Nebraska officials bought the drugs from Harris, who also sold execution drugs to the state in 2010. The drugs' manufacturer later accused Harris of misrepresenting how he intended to use them, and legal challenges prevented the state from using that batch of drugs before it expired.
The latest drug batch was bought without a request for proposals, a standard practice the state uses to buy goods and services. Frakes said one of his deputies consulted with the Department of Administrative Services — which oversees state purchases — and told him the purchase was allowed.
He acknowledged under questioning that he allowed Harris to dictate the price and quantity of both drugs. Nebraska spent $26,700 for 1,000 doses of sodium thiopental and $26,000 for 1,000 doses of pancuronium bromide, despite having only 10 men currently on death row. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, using the electric chair.
"The decision was made because the seller, the vendor, said those are the terms," Frakes said in testimony to the committee.
Nebraska and other states have been forced to come up new sources for drugs as pharmaceutical companies, many of which are based in Europe, have stopped selling them for executions.