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FBI Looks into Relationship between GEO Group and Former Florida House Speaker

In March 2011, PLN reported on the political machinations that led to the construction of Florida’s Blackwater River Correctional Institution (BRCI), which is operated by GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison firm. BRCI was opened at a time when there was excess bed space in Florida’s prison system and it was not needed, and one of the lawmakers who championed the facility had connections with GEO. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.1].

The FBI has since launched an investigation into potentially illicit conduct in connection with the legislative process involving BRCI.

The federal investigation apparently centers around former Florida House of Representatives Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned in February 2010 amid a state criminal and ethics investigation. The main thrust of the state investigation, which was dropped in March 2011, involved allegations that Sansom had falsified the 2007-08 state budget to insert $6 million in appropriations for the construction of an aircraft hanger for Jay Odom, a prominent contributor to the Florida Republican Party.

GEO Group, incidentally, is also a major contributor to Florida Republicans. Through two political action committees, GEO gave $85,000 to the Republican Party of Florida from 2006 through 2009, plus tens of thousands of dollars in donations to state Republican Party PACs and individual Republican candidates.

Subpoenas issued by the FBI between March and June 2011 reveal the scope of the federal investigation. One subpoena requires the Florida Office of Legislative Services to provide to the grand jury all travel vouchers submitted by Sansom and his former assistants, Melanie Parker, Eric Edwards, Dory Balter and Samantha Sullivan. Another subpoena requires Sullivan, who served as Sansom’s former district legislative aide, to produce all records pertaining to her role in that capacity and forms detailing expenditures made from legislative expense accounts that draw from excess campaign finances.

A third subpoena indicates the reach of the FBI inquiry goes beyond the use of Republican Party funds and is directed at Sansom’s possible involvement with GEO Group in constructing and operating BRCI. That subpoena directed TEAM Santa Rosa, the economic development arm of Santa Rosa County, where BRCI is located, to provide all records that pertain to “Project Justice,” the code name given to the prison. The subpoena demanded records related to the “planning, design, funding, appropriation, construction, and/or operation of any privately owned correctional facility located in Santa Rosa County,” including the county’s acquisition of the land on which the prison was built.

Of particular interest to the FBI, according to TEAM Santa Rosa Executive Director Cindy Anderson, were documents related to communications between Sansom and GEO Group. Released documents indicate that as early as February 2008, state Senator Don Gaetz and Sansom, who at the time was the House budget chief, discussed the idea of a new prison as a means of economic development for Santa Rosa County.

The events surrounding a March 27, 2008 trip that Sansom made for “personal business” to Boca Raton, Florida, where GEO Group is headquartered, are curious. The previous month a team of GEO executives delivered a presentation to the Florida Senate Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, seeking more prisoners in exchange for a discounted contract per diem rate, plus the expansion of another prison the company operated for the state – the 1,884-bed Graceville Correctional Institution (GCI), located in Sansom’s district.

The “business” that Sansom conducted in Boca Raton, which is 400 miles south of his district, is unknown. What is known, however, is that when he returned to the state capitol a week later he inserted a provision into the draft 2008-2009 House General Appropriations Bill to spend $110 million to expand GCI by 2,000 beds.

The provision was removed, but four days later Sansom added another provision that provided for the same expansion of prison beds but removed specific references to GCI.
In the end, the $110 million was appropriated to build the Blackwater River Correctional Institution, and GEO Group won the bid to operate the prison. This ultimately cost Florida taxpayers $140 million at a time when state prison officials said BRCI was unnecessary due to a slowdown in prison population growth.

After the legislative session was over, Allen Bell, a facilitator who worked on the BRCI project, sent an email to TEAM Santa Rosa which said, “Project Justice and everything and everybody involved with Project Justice needs to remain confidential.”

Also of interest is the fact that when drafting the Appropriations Bill provisions, Sansom was working with Donna Arduin, who until 2007 had served on the board of Correctional Properties Trust, a real estate investment trust founded by GEO Group when the company was known as Wackenhut Corrections.

Sansom has denied any wrongdoing, claiming his trip to Boca Raton was “totally unrelated” to anything concerning GEO Group, and stating he had nothing to do with GEO getting the contract to operate BRCI. Hopefully the federal grand jury and the FBI can sort out the inter-relationships between BRCI, GEO Group, former House Speaker Sansom and TEAM Santa Rosa. The investigation remains pending.

Sources: www.dbapress.com, Miami Herald, www.gainesville.com, www.nwfdailynews.com, www.inthesetimes.com

 

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