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Prison Realty Board Member Settles Ethics Complaints

Prof. Charles W. Thomas, director of the Private Corrections Project at the University of Florida and a board member of Prison Realty Corp., has long been criticized for his close connections with the private prison companies he researches [see: "University professor shills for private prison industry," PLN, Feb. 1999].

On April 19, 1999, Thomas agreed to settle two ethics complaints filed against him by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents state corrections employees. In light of a $3 million fee he received for advising CCA on its merger with Prison Realty Trust, Thomas acknowledged that his business dealings with private prison operators could create the impression of a conflict of interest.

According to Eric Scott of the state Attorney General's office, Thomas's "contractual relationships with [Prison Realty Corp.] created a situation which could tempt dishonor. Because the results of [his] research can have such a profound effect on the private prison industry, [he] is in a position where his private economic interests and his public duty overlap in a manner which could lead to a disregard of his public duty. In other words, [he] could be tempted to alter the results of his research in an effort to maintain or increase his private economic benefit."

Thomas's supporters say there is no evidence that his research directly influenced prison privatization-related decisions by lawmakers, even though his work has been relied on in several states, including Ohio and Tennessee. Thomas also has worked closely with Florida's legislative Correctional Privatization Commission and his reports about private prison companies have been widely used by stock analysts.

Under the settlement agreement with Florida's Commission on Ethics, Thomas will pay a $2,000 fine and resign as director of the Private Corrections Project. He will maintain his board position with Prison Realty Corp. and does not admit any wrongdoing. The Ethics Commission approved the proposed settlement on June 3. Thomas's resignation from the university project is effective as of August 13, 1999.

The Tennessean, The Palm Beach Post

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