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Prisoner Education Guide

Private Prison Company Pays to Play; Federal Election Commission Fails to Act

by Christopher Zoukis

GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison companies, donated $225,000 to the pro-Trump Super PAC Rebuilding America Now during the 2016 election cycle. Within a few months after President Trump’s inauguration, in April 2017, GEO was awarded a $110 million federal contract to build a 1,000-bed immigration detention facility.

The Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan public interest watchdog organization that monitors elections for violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), recognized the particular stench that accompanies improper political influence. So the group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), alleging GEO Group had violated the FECA by making donations to the PAC while holding federal contracts – which is prohibited. That was on November 1, 2016. Since then the FEC has utterly failed to act.

Therefore, on January 10, 2018, CLC filed suit against the FEC in federal court. The complaint seeks to require the agency to do its job, which is to enforce the FECA.

CLC’s lawsuit over GEO Group’s PAC donation is straightforward. Federal law prohibits a federal contractor, such as GEO, from “directly or indirectly ... mak[ing] any contribution of money or other thing of value ... to any person for any political purpose or use.” GEO Group donated large sums of money to the pro-Trump PAC, including $100,000 the day after then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates instructed the federal Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of privately-operated prisons. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.22]. GEO donated another $125,000 the same day the CLC filed its complaint with the FEC.

“The contractor ban is essential to prevent companies from using campaign contributions to buy government contracts, and that ban must be enforced,” CLC senior director Adav Noti, a former FEC associate general counsel, said in a press release. “This is why we need an effective FEC. If the agency sits on its hands, the law is not worth the paper it is printed on.”

GEO Group denied it had violated the FECA, pointing out its donations had been made through a subsidiary.

“Our contribution was fully compliant with all applicable federal election laws,” GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement. “GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., the company that made the donation, is a non-contracting legal entity and has no contracts with any governmental agency.”

Of course GEO’s subsidiary is under the company’s control, and such sleight of hand to circumvent restrictions on political contributions is embarrassingly obvious.

According to Newsweek, GEO Corrections Holding had also donated $200,000 to another Republican PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, on September 27, 2016; the year before it had given $100,000 to the Conservative Solutions PAC.

Almost immediately after being confirmed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Yates’ directive to phase out federal private prisons. In an effort to determine the basis for Sessions’ decision, CLC submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Office of the Attorney General and the Bureau of Prisons for “[a]ll factual materials, reports, and other evidence that the DOJ considered in reaching its conclusion to rescind the [Yates memo].” The DOJ failed to produce any documents, so CLC filed a FOIA suit. The DOJ eventually indicated that none of the agencies had any responsive documents.

So what was the basis for the Attorney General’s policy reversal with respect to private prisons? Why was GEO Group awarded a $110 million contract almost immediately after Trump took office, following $225,000 in donations to a PAC supporting his election? And why has the Federal Election Commission refused to investigate the company for violating FECA’s prohibition on contributions by government contractors?

The answer seems obvious: it’s business as usual. Politics is a pay-to-play game, and GEO Group is willing to pay. The company has made at least $845,000 in political donations since 2015 alone. The CLC’s lawsuit against the FEC remains pending, with the agency filing a motion to dismiss on March 19, 2018. See: Campaign Legal Center v. Federal Election Commission, U.S.D.C. (D. DC), Case No. 1:18-cv-00053-TSC.

In addition to campaign contributions, GEO Group and other for-profit prison companies, including CoreCivic and MTC, have spent millions in lobbying on the federal and state levels. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.16]. 

Additional sources: www.lawandcrime.com, www.campaignlegal.org, www.newsweek.com

 

Related legal case

Campaign Legal Center v. Federal Election Commission


 

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