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PLN associate editor quoted in TX article re GEO Group / private prisons

Texas Watchdog, Jan. 1, 2009. http://www.texaswatchdog.org/2009/04/lawmakers-...
PLN associate editor quoted in TX article re GEO Group / private prisons - Texas Watchdog 2009

Lawmakers’ relatives work for GEO Group prison co. as state weighs clamp-down on embattled firm

By Matt Pulle | Monday, April 27th, 2009

Two state lawmakers from South Texas have financial ties to a private prison firm that runs facilities for the Texas state prison system — at a time when lawmakers are debating sweeping new measures to clamp down on corrections companies.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, have financial links to the GEO Group, a Florida-based firm that runs 19 correctional facilities in Texas, including nine under contract for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Zaffirini’s husband, Carlos, is a lawyer and advocate for the firm, formerly known as Wackenhut. In December 2007, the Zaffirinis’ hometown commissioners in rural Webb County considered whether to stop supplying water and sewer lines to a local GEO-owned prison after residents voiced concerns about the company’s track record. The Laredo Morning Times reported that Zaffirini put on a spirited defense of the firm, claiming the complaints against his client were “steeped in emotion and void of logic.”

Oliveira, meanwhile, also has a cozy relationship with the prison company. His Brownsville law firm serves as its local defense counsel. The House member’s cousin David Oliveira, a partner at the firm, has represented the company on a lawsuit alleging misconduct that one judge described as “reprehensible.”

The lawmakers’ ties to the company raise all sorts of messy questions: Can either one of them vote on any legislation that would place tough regulations on how the GEO Group does business? Why haven’t they disclosed their interest in the firm on their personal financial statements? And should any lawmaker have a financial interest in a company that feeds out of the public trough?

“The private prison industry is dependent on taxpayer dollars,” says Alex Friedmann, the associate editor of Prison Legal News, a newsletter dedicated to protecting inmates’ legal rights. “So, yes, I believe Zaffirini and Oliveira have a conflict of interest, or at least a perceived conflict of interest.”

Oliveira did not return repeated phone calls for comment left beginning March 24. Zaffirini, meanwhile, says that she is largely unfamiliar with the company’s recent struggles, even though her husband works for the firm.

“I quite frankly have not given private prisons a lot of thought,” she says. “I spend most of the time focusing on the issues of the poor, the elderly and people who can’t represent themselves.”

Lawmakers could vote this spring to get tough with private prison companies, including the GEO Group, after the company’s missteps have brought Texas prisons national attention for poor, unstable conditions.

Critics say Zaffirini and Oliveira, because of their personal ties to the company, should recuse themselves from prison-related votes. But Zaffirini says she would vote on the private-prison measures, and that her legislative aides have no knowledge of her husband’s work.


 


 

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