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Cheney and Gonzales Indicted in Connection with Private Prison in Texas

Cheney and Gonzales Indicted in Connection with Private Prison in Texas

by Matt Clarke

On November 17, 2008, a Texas grand jury returned an indictment against then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, charging Cheney with contributing to prisoner abuse in privately-run prisons and Gonzales with covering up the abuse by interfering with investigations.

The indictment named GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), CCA and Cornell Corrections as unindicted co-actors. It stated that Cheney and the companies, in a for-profit scheme, neglected federal prisoners by allowing them to be assaulted by other prisoners and denying them proper medical care, among other allegations.

Cheney’s ties with the private prison firms were twofold: (1) his $85 million investment in the Vanguard Group, which “appears on the top ten list of companies that house Federal detainees that are being rounded up by ICE officials,” and (2) his position as Vice President, through which he exerted “a tremendous influence on ICE and has a say in how much ICE will pay the said private prison per diem.”

The grand jurors stated it was “appalling to find that numerous elected officials from different levels of our government throughout our country to our U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, defendant, are profiting from depriving human beings of their liberty.”

The indictment was presented to the grand jury by then-Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra. Another indictment charged Texas State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., with accepting bribes from private prison companies. That charge was based on Lucio’s employment as a consultant for Management and Training Corporation (MTC), CorPlan Corrections, Aguirre Inc., Hale Mills Corporation, TEDSI Infrastructure Group Inc. and Dannenbaum Engineering Corp., all of which are involved in the private prison industry.

The indictment alleged that Senator Lucio would not have been paid by the companies had he not been a public servant. The grand jury also indicted state judges Janet Leal and Migdalia Lopez, former special prosecutors Mervyn Mosbacker, Jr. and Gustavo Garza, and district clerk Gilbert Lozano for abusing their offices in relation to criminal charges – later dismissed – that had been previously filed against Guerra.

Yet another indictment charged GEO Group with murder and manslaughter in connection with the April 2001 beating death of prisoner Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. The indictment alleged that GEO had allowed two other prisoners to beat de la Rosa to death with padlocks stuffed into socks. In 2006, a state civil suit that accused GEO of a cover-up and failing to search prisoners for weapons ended with a jury award of $47.5 million in favor of de la Rosa’s family. That verdict was recently upheld on appeal [see related article in this issue of PLN].

District Judge J. Manuel Bañales dismissed the indictments against Cheney, Gonzales, GEO Group, Senator Lucio and the county officials on December 1, 2008, on the basis that two alternate jurors who participated in the grand jury had been improperly seated, and the indictments were therefore defective. Cheney and Gonzalez didn’t even bother to send attorneys to represent them at the hearing. “I expected it,” said Guerra. “The system is going to protect itself.”

Guerra had unsuccessfully tried to have Judge Bañales recused due to his close relationship with Senator Lucio. Instead, on December 10, Bañales removed Guerra from any further cases related to the defendants charged in the indictments and ordered him to turn over his files to another prosecutor, District Attorney Pro Tem Alfredo Padilla.
Guerra appealed the order, but his appeal was denied by the Texas Court of Appeals on December 29, 2008 for lack of jurisdiction. See: In re Guerra, Tex.App. LEXIS 9657 (Tex.App. Corpus Christi 2008).

Padilla presented the evidence collected by Guerra to a new grand jury in January 2009; as of April, the grand jury was still considering whether to reissue the indictments. “It continues its work,” Padilla stated.

Guerra said his investigation into private prison corruption, profiteering and prisoner abuse was long-standing and ongoing. “A half a billion dollars they made,” he noted, referring to GEO Group’s lucrative federal contracts. He cited Philip Perry, Cheney’s son-in-law, who was general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the Bush administration, as an example of how corruption was permeating high levels of government. DHS, which is over ICE, contracts with private prison firms to house immigration detainees.

Senator Lucio claimed that the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) had approved his consulting work with private prison companies. Guerra disagreed, saying Lucio was citing generalized opinions as if they were made regarding his specific circumstances, and that neither the TEC nor the Attorney General had specifically approved his relationship with private prison firms, which Guerra steadfastly maintains is corrupt.

Guerra said he just wants the companies, some of which had been implicated (but not charged) in the bribery of three county commissioners, to appear in court and explain what services Senator Lucio provided in exchange for the payments he received. The companies claimed Lucio was paid for public relations work but have refused to specify exactly what work he performed.

Senator Lucio has acknowledged he received consulting fees for introducing corporate employees to public officials, and said he had been doing consulting work for private prison firms since 1999. “Public relations doesn’t require a product in terms of written material,” noted James M. Parkley, president and co-founder of CorPlan. “He [Lucio] keeps our names in front of people.”

Senator Lucio’s attorney, Michael R. Cowen, said Lucio had to do outside consulting work to make a living since he is only paid $600 a month as a legislator and is unable to support his family on $7,200 a year. Indeed, such consulting work is much more lucrative than public service.

TEC records show Senator Lucio received at least $300,000 from CorPlan Corrections, Aguirre Inc., MTC, TEDSI Infrastructure Group, Inc. and Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. from 2003 to 2007. In January 2005, when three of the companies became the focus of a bribery investigation, Lucio took a “leave of absence” from working for those firms due to potential bad publicity.

Guerra has successfully prosecuted people connected with private prisons in Willacy and Webb Counties. He indicted three county commissioners for accepting bribes in conjunction with federal private prison contracts. They later pleaded guilty, but one died prior to sentencing. Although Lucio’s name surfaced in that investigation, he denied wrongdoing and was not charged. [See: PLN, Sept. 2007, p.1; Nov. 2005, p.20].

On December 31, 2008, his last day in office, Guerra filed a civil lawsuit to seize 10.6 acres of San Benito property owned by Senator Lucio. The suit alleged the property was purchased with ill-gotten funds.

Critics claim that Guerra has been pursuing a retributive campaign against his political opponents. Guerra was himself under the cloud of an indictment for 18 months; Judge Bañales dismissed the charges after Guerra lost his re-election bid in the March 2008 Democratic primary. The indictment alleged that Guerra had extorted money from a bail bonding company and had used his office for personal business.

Guerra’s office was raided during the investigation, and he obtained national attention by camping outside the courthouse in a borrowed camper with a rooster, three goats and a horse in protest of the raid and the criminal charges, which he claimed were politically motivated and intended to keep him from being re-elected. He believes his earlier success against the county commissioners involved in the private prison bribery scandal was the motivation behind the charges filed against him.

As a result, Guerra ran his investigation into private prisons and prisoner abuse from his home, without informing his staff. He called the investigation “Operation Goliath” and gave his witnesses code names from the Bible, calling himself “David.” When witnesses were to appear and testify, he publicized false reasons for them to be summoned to the courthouse so they wouldn’t face retaliation for their cooperation.

Following the dismissal of the indictments that Guerra had obtained against GEO Group, Cheney, Gonzales, Senator Lucio and the other defendants, GEO was in the news again after riots broke out at the company’s Reeves County Detention Complex in Pecos, Texas. The 2,400-bed facility experienced major riots on December 12, 2008 and January 31, 2009 that resulted in over $1 million in property damage.

The first riot started following the death of a prisoner due to medical causes; prisoners at the facility, which mainly houses illegal immigrants, said they wanted better healthcare and wanted to speak with the Mexican consulate. Two prison employees were reportedly held hostage in the January incident, which lasted several days; 25 prisoners have since been indicted on federal charges for participating in the riots.

“If people are rioting, something is going on,” said Guerra. “They’re not being treated right.” The ACLU has called for an investigation of the GEO facility. “Such an investigation should focus on both the immediate causes of the disturbances as well as the root causes, which may involve poor conditions ranging from inadequate medical care to poor food, ventilation, etc.,” stated Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, and Terri Burke, director of the ACLU of Texas.

Guerra, no longer a district attorney after his term ended, says he now represents 250 prisoners at the facility but GEO was not letting him meet with them. “They’re my clients,” he said. “That’s a basic right that anybody who’s detained on United States soil has, is the right to see an attorney.” GEO cited safety concerns as the reason for denying Guerra access to the prison, which was on lockdown.

On March 5, 2009, Reeves County Detention Complex prisoner Jose Manuel Falcon, 33, died due to injuries that prison officials claimed were self-inflicted. He reportedly had only two months left to serve before his release.

In April 2009, after he was denied access to meet with prisoners at the Reeves facility, Guerra camped out on the road a short distance from the prison. He erected 90 white crosses, which represent prisoners who have died at privately-operated prisons in the past three years. He remained outside the facility for weeks, and was joined by Falcon’s mother.

GEO has experienced a number of other recent problems at its Texas facilities. Randy McCullough, an Idaho state prisoner incarcerated at the GEO-run Bill Clayton Detention Center (BCDC) in Littlefield, Texas, committed suicide on August 18, 2008. The prison was so understaffed that Warden Arthur Anderson, who found McCullough’s body just after midnight, was working the graveyard shift as a guard.

An investigation by the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC) determined that no one had checked on McCullough after he was fed supper at 5:45 p.m., that log book entries from the night he died were inaccurate, and that the security system’s videotape displayed a different date and did not show the arrival of emergency responders. The investigation also concluded that none of GEO’s staff responded to the emergency properly or followed prison policy.

In November 2008, the IDOC announced it was terminating its contract with GEO Group and removing its 300 prisoners, who were returned to Idaho. Consequently, GEO abruptly canceled its contract to manage the city-owned prison and announced plans to fire 74 employees. This led to Fitch Ratings lowering Littlefield’s $1.4 million combination tax revenue bonds and certificates of obligation to a “BBB” rating.

In more bad news for GEO, Emmanuel Cassio, 20, a former guard at the company’s Val Verde Detention Center (VVDC), was sentenced in November 2008 to 16 months in federal prison – 10 months for deprivation of a prisoner’s civil rights under color of law and 6 months for hindering communication of information related to a federal offense. He also received three years supervised release and a $3,000 fine.

Cassio was a guard at VVDC from April through November 2006. The charges stemmed from his punching a prisoner without provocation and lying to investigators. The troubled GEO facility has been monitored by the county since settling a lawsuit over a previous incident involving sexual abuse and medical neglect that led to a female prisoner’s suicide. [See: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.23].

Further, a GEO employee has filed suit alleging racial discrimination at the prison, and in 2007 four VVDC prisoners caught a mysterious illness. Three died. The Texas Jail Project named the facility the “worst Texas jail.”

And, of course, there was the scandal involving the GEO-run Coke County juvenile facility in 2007. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.18]. “It’s staggering to think about how many problems the GEO Group has had in Texas,” said Bob Libal, who coordinates Texas operations for Grassroots Leadership, a civil rights organization.

Not that GEO has any worries that such problems or bad publicity will result in any lasting impact, as the company wields significant clout through its well-connected lobbyists and political allies. For example, Carlos Zaffirini, an attorney who represents GEO, is the husband of State Senator Judith Zaffirini. State Rep. Rene Oliveira and his cousin David Oliveira are partners in another law firm that represents GEO. The company’s lobbyists have included former State Rep. Ray Allen; Scott Gilmore, Allen’s former legislative chief of staff; Bill Miller, who is a personal friend of former House Speaker Tom Craddick; and Michelle Wittenburg, Craddick’s former general counsel.

While it was atypical for GEO Group to be indicted on murder charges related to the death of a prisoner at one of the company’s for-profit lockups, the charges were dismissed, the prosecutor who obtained the indictment is no longer in office, and it’s now back to business as usual.

Sources: Indictment No. 2008-CR-0128-A, State of Texas v. Richard B. Cheney and Alberto Gonzales; Associated Press; Brownsville Herald; Valley Morning Star;;;;; Del Rio News-Herald;;;;;;

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