Charles L. Overby is a man who leads dual lives; a man who has each foot planted firmly in two very different worlds. In one world he is a champion of the free press. In the other, he is one of a group at the helm of a corporation that has worked hard to limit freedom of information and the ability of the press to inform the public.
In one world he is chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum – located in Washington D.C., blocks from the Smithsonian and the Capitol Building – which literally has the First Amendment etched into its 75-foot marble edifice. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and reporter, former vice president of news and communications for Gannett Co. Inc., and former management committee member of both Gannett and the company’s flagship paper, USA Today.
Overby, according to his Freedom Forum biography, also serves on the board of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans and is a member of the foundation board at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi.
What Overby’s Freedom Forum biography fails to disclose is that in his other world he sits on the board of directors for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), both as a member of the Audit Committee and as chair of the Nominating and Governance Committee, and has since 2001.
This omission is easy to understand when you juxtapose the Freedom Forum’s guiding principles, “free speech, free press and free spirit,” against CCA’s recent actions and attitudes toward the press and freedom of information.
CCA and the Press
From 2007 to 2009, CCA, the nation’s largest private jailer (holding more than 70,000 prisoners in over 60 facilities and reporting $1.6 billion in revenue for 2008), spent millions of dollars successfully lobbying against two pieces of federal legislation: the Public Safety Act, which would have outlawed private prisons, and the Private Prison Information Act of 2007. As no hearing was ever held on the Public Safety Act, it is fair to infer that the bulk of those resources went toward suppressing the latter bill.
The Private Prison Information Act of 2007 (PPIA), introduced in the 110th Congress as HR 1889 by Pennsylvania Representative Tim Holden, would have placed privately-operated prisons that contracted with the federal government under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In June 2008, Rep. Holden testified to the need for increased public disclosure in the private prison industry, and alluded to the amount of adverse pressure facing the bill, in his comments before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security:
“In recent weeks, opposition to this bill has mobilized. Although I cannot testify on their behalf, I can reiterate my concern that opposition to this bill is opposition to reporting transparency, to the public’s safety, and the safety of corrections officers working in these federally-contracted facilities. As you will hear, repeated attempts to ascertain information from these institutions have been rejected, if not ignored completely.”
“Roughly 25,000 federal criminal prisoners are jailed in private facilities at any given time. Yet private prisons are not required to publicly disclose information about their facilities’ daily operations,” Rep. Holden continued. “Without strong FOIA requirements, we cannot assure whistleblowers are able to come forth and gather evidence they need to support any claims; we cannot assure public safety is paramount if the information provided is not on-par with the information provided from our state and federal institutions.”
In May 2008, one such whistleblower came forward. Ronald T. Jones, a former quality assurance division senior manager at CCA’s corporate office, told TIME magazine that CCA often issued misleading statements concerning prison disturbances – or completely glossed them over – in reports to contracting government agencies. Jones also claimed that CCA went so far as to keep two sets of books – one doctored for public consumption and one for internal use. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.7].
Rep. Holden also related the findings of the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, comprised of members of the Ohio General Assembly, which conducted a surprise inspection of the CCA-owned Northeast Ohio Correctional Facility in 2006. The facility, which CCA bills as “low security,” is under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The committee found that there had been 44 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults at the facility between June 2005 and May 2006. Much to their alarm, the committee noted that by comparison there were 305 recorded assaults in all of Ohio’s 32 correctional facilities during 2005. When members of the media inquired as to the severity of the assaults or what subsequent actions had been taken by the administration at the CCA prison, they received no reply.
The PPIA died before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security with the expiration of the 110th Congress; it never made it to a vote.
“Our information was that lobbying by or on behalf of the [private prison industry] had killed it,” said Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News and vice president of the Private Corrections Institute, who had testified in support of the bill at a subcommittee hearing on June 26, 2008.
Friedmann noted that the Democratic leadership in the House, under Rep. John Conyers, Jr., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, wasn’t happy with the bill as written – which likely had something to do with its demise, too. “Rep. Conyers’ office wanted the FOIA provisions to be made part of contractual agreements with federal agencies, not a stand-alone law,” Friedmann stated.
That same reservation was one of the chief arguments employed by Michael Flynn, director of government affairs for the Reason Foundation (publisher of Reason magazine), who was the only witness to testify before the subcommittee against the PPIA. Flynn had stated that by legislating FOIA requirements for private prisons, Congress would establish a dangerous precedent that would discourage private sector competition for federal contracts.
However, as Friedmann pointed out in a statement to the subcommittee, “Mr. Flynn failed to mention that most of the leading opponents to [the PPIA] are private prison companies, their lobbyists and organizations that have received funding from the private prison industry – including the Reason Foundation.... Mr. Flynn did not see fit to mention that the Reason Foundation is a major proponent of prison privatization and has received funding from private prison companies, including CCA.”
Last May, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee reintroduced the PPIA as the Private Prison Information Act of 2009 (HR 2450), citing concerns that the private prison industry, along with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee, might be fabricating reports concerning immigrant detainee populations in order to gain additional funding and influence immigration policy. From the bill’s reintroduction through October 2009, CCA spent $540,000 on three sets of lobbyists with a stated interest in the PPIA.
Loyalties, Lobbyists and CCA’s PAC
Overby declined to comment on his involvement with CCA, so one can only rely on arithmetic and existing documentation when trying to discern how he reconciles his role at the Freedom Forum with his role at CCA, or to which his alle-giance lies.
On one hand, according to records filed with the IRS pursuant to the Forum’s tax-exempt status, Overby derived over $474,000 in compensation and expenses from the Freedom Forum in 2007. His present compensation is unknown, as there are no subsequent Freedom Forum or Newseum filings available on record with the IRS.
On the other hand, according to Forbes.com, Overby received a total of $198,610 in compensation for serving on CCA’s board of directors in 2008. As a director of CCA, he is also a shareholder in the corporation. Security and Ex-change Commission records indicate that Overby was awarded 26,918 shares between 2008 and 2009 under the company’s stock incentive plan for simply being reelected to the board (CCA’s stock was valued at $16.36 per share at year-end 2008 and $24.55 at year-end 2009).
Overby’s relationship with CCA is not just pocketbook deep. According to Federal Election Commission records, both Overby and CCA President and CEO Damon Hininger maintain residences in the wealthy Nashville suburban enclave of Brentwood, not far from CCA corporate headquarters.
Overby’s involvement with the extended CCA family most likely dates back to the 1979-1987 administration of Tennessee Governor (now U.S. Senator) Lamar Alexander, when Overby served as a special assistant in Alexander’s ad-ministration.
In 1985, Alexander backed CCA’s unsuccessful bid to take over Tennessee’s prison system, at which time it was revealed that his wife, Honey, held stock in the company. Following this revelation, Honey traded in her CCA shares to the Massey-Burch Investment Group for some insurance stock – which she then sold, making $142,000 off her initial $8,900 CCA investment. [See: PLN, June 1997, p.5].
The Massey-Burch Investment Group also provided CCA co-founder Tom Beasley with venture capital to start the corporation in 1983. Beasley, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and longtime friend of Lamar Alexander, managed one of Alexander’s gubernatorial campaigns. Today, Massey-Burch partner and co-founder Lucius E. Burch III sits on CCA’s board of directors along with Overby.
Both Overby and his wife, Andrea, along with other CCA directors, executives and their family members, have continued to contribute thousands of dollars to Lamar Alexander’s various political campaigns over the years, making the ex-tended CCA family one of his primary sources of political capital.
And so it was that throughout the pitched battle between CCA and the PPIA, Overby and the Freedom Forum remained silent, never once weighing in to defend the assertions of media representatives and lawmakers that public inquiry into federally-contracted private prisons should be protected by the Freedom of Information Act.
From 2007 to 2009, CCA employed six sets of lobbyists assigned to several federal issues, including the PPIA. However, none of those groups – which had budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – approached the monetary or professional clout of the corporation’s A-list team assigned to the PPIA.
That team was composed of Overby’s colleagues at CCA – executives such as CEO Damon Hininger, General Counsel Gus Puryear, former Bureau of Prisons director and CCA Senior Vice President Michael Quinlan, and CCA Vice President of Federal and Local Customer Relations Bart Verhulst, who served as chief of staff under former U.S. Senator Bill Frist. This group of executive-level lobbyists expended $3.45 million in lobbying primarily against the Public Safety Act and Private Prison Information Act over the course of 2007 and 2008, along with other unspecified federal issues concerning the private prison industry.
While Overby is not registered as a lobbyist with the Clerk of the House of Representatives, as are other members of CCA’s top brass, it is important to note that he has paid $35,000 into CCA’s political action committee (PAC) from 2003 to date – $10,000 of which was donated in 2007 and 2008. During that time period, the PAC – a virtual cash dispensary that favors lawmakers whom CCA imagines to be in a position to scratch its back – paid out thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to House Judiciary Committee members Zoe Lofgren and Dan Lungren (who both sit on the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security), and to Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers. None of whom had received any money from CCA’s PAC prior to the introduction of the PPIA in 2007.
Peter Sussman, former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is a co-author of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, a member of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee and a board member of the Human Rights Defense Center which publishes Prison Legal News. While careful to point out that he was not speaking for the SPJ and that he had no prior knowledge of Overby’s involvement with CCA, Sussman said that Overby’s “dual allegiance” was troubling.
“If you’re promoting freedom of the press – and it’s always been my understanding that the Freedom Forum does that – and at the same time, appearing to purchase limits on press access to places that are acting on behalf of the public by contract – that just seems wrong ... it’s so obvious to me that it’s hard to articulate it,” said Sussman. “It also troubles me when I hear that the head of an organization devoted to the freedom of the press won’t talk to the press about his own alleged conflict.”
Sussman noted that this conflict was especially egregious, as the press is only seeking access to institutions carrying out a function which has traditionally been one of the core responsibilities of the government.
“I really want to make clear also that you cannot hide government information by contracting out to a private company – as long as that private company is doing a function that traditionally has been a government function, and that is still by and large a governmental function – especially when it involves the liberty and access to the public of people who really have no other recourse and who are dependent on that public institution,” Sussman explained.
“The only way we are going to effectively evolve crime policies, the only way we’re going to be able to monitor the behavior of people who have sole control over other individuals without the access to the public that most other people have – the only way we’re going to do that is to allow the public, through the press, to look into the operations of these [private prison] institutions and the behavior of the people who run them – and also talk to those incarcerated to get their perspective on this crucial public function that we have so far failed to handle effectively.”
Ed. Note: The 2009 version of the Private Prison Information Act was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it has remained pending with no action since June 12, 2009. Although the bill has 15 co-sponsors in the House, companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the Senate.
A modified version of this article appeared in the January 2010 issue of Extra!, a publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.
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