Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, already spends a significant amount of money courting federal agencies and members of Congress. CCA employs three lobbying firms in Washington D.C., spent about $1 million in lobbying on the federal level in 2009, and has its own Political Action Committee. CCA executives and employees have made over $135,000 in campaign donations to federal political candidates in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.
Recently, though, Talking Points Memo, a news organization that specializes in reporting on government and political issues, found another way that CCA influences federal officials: Three former and current Congressional staffers with ties to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, run an event-planning business that has accepted money from CCA to plan events honoring Thompson.
Dena Graziano, Rep. Thompson’s communication director since 2006, co-founded Chic Productions along with Michone Johnson, chief counsel for a House Judiciary subcommittee, and Michelle Persaud, a former House Judiciary Committee staffer. According to Chic’s website the company provides “high style events with simple elegance,” and congressional events make up about 90 percent of its business.
Lobbyist disclosure statements that reveal these types of arrangements have only been required since 2008, so the prior history of Chic’s relationship with Rep. Thompson is unknown. What is known, however, is that Chic has planned at least six events for Thompson other than lobbyist receptions during the past three years. The company also planned Congressional Black Caucus events in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, some of which were hosted by Rep. Thompson or held in his home state of Mississippi
Over a six-week period in 2008, four companies paid Chic Productions a total of $22,500 to plan events honoring Thompson. CCA contributed $10,000, the most of the four firms. Notably, CCA has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security to house ICE detainees, and around 40% of CCA’s business comes from federal agencies.
“Any time a member of Congress perhaps directs business to somebody who is a close personal friend or employee, the member’s constituents should at the very least ask questions about why this was the case,” stated Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “If a staffer who receives a taxpayer-funded salary is using that position to further their personal wealth, that could be of concern.”
Likewise, a private prison company that pays a firm run by current and former Congressional staffers, with the not-so-subtle goal of influencing a member of Congress, also should be a matter of concern. But apparently that’s just how the game is played in Washington.
In related news, Rep. Thompson has been accused of ethics violations by a former staffer who claims she was fired after she raised objections to “inappropriate lobbyist requests.” Other Homeland Security Committee employees said Thompson held a hearing on new rules for credit card companies in March 2009 just to put the squeeze on Visa and Mastercard for campaign donations. He received $15,000 in contributions from the credit card industry and its lobbyists within weeks of the hearing. A House ethics panel is investigating the allegations.
Sources: www.tpmmuckraker.com, Washington Post, www.opensecrets.org
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