In August 2016, just after an Obama administration decision to stop contracting with for-profit private prisons sent its stock price tumbling, GEO Group, Inc., the country’s largest private prison contractor, donated $100,000 to a super PAC aligned with then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.
Through a wholly owned subsidiary called GEO Corrections Holdings, Florida-based GEO Group, Inc. – whose $2.33 billion in 2018 revenues would have been threatened had Hillary Clinton won and continued Obama’s policy – then gave another $125,000 a week before the election to the Trump-aligned super PAC, known as “Rebuilding America Now” and chaired by Florida’s then-governor and current senator, Rick Scott. When Trump won, GEO Group stock quickly rose 21%, and it gave an additional $250,000 to his inauguration committee.
In February 2017, a month after Trump’s inauguration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding the Obama policy and expanding federal use of private prison contractors instead. Two months later, the administration awarded a $110 million, 10-year federal contract to GEO Group for construction and operation of a 1,000-bed facility in Texas to house undocumented detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the $10 billion federal agency primarily tasked with implementing Trump’s immigration policy of detaining and removing undocumented immigrants.
Since then, GEO Group has grown to become ICE’s largest vendor, holding contracts worth $471 million in total. Meanwhile, GEO Group and its subsidiaries have given $550,000 to the Republican Senate Leadership Fund, $325,000 to the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund, as well as $275,000 to the New Republican PAC, which supported Scott through his successful 2018 Senate campaign in Florida.
The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint in 2017 with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), alleging GEO Group violated 75-year-old federal law prohibiting federal contractors from making political donations in order to influence federal law and policy in their favor.
“You can’t let subsidiaries get around what is illegal for the parent corporation to do,” argues Craig Holman, an ethics advocate at Public Citizen. “Otherwise you just essentially throw out the law.”
CLC attorney Brendan Fisher agreed, “A contractor can’t dodge the ban by making a contribution through a wholly-owned subsidiary.”
CLC modeled its complaint on an earlier one it had filed against a Boston-based construction company and government contractor that donated $200,000 in 2015 to a pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC. That company was cited by FEC for violating the ban on “pay-to-play” donations and fined $34,000 to settle the case.
But the FEC didn’t act on CLC’s complaint. So, in January 2018, CLC sued FEC. That suit is still pending, but Fischer says that even if a court orders action, FEC has lost too many members now to vote on it.
“The FEC sat on our complaint for years, and has now lost its quorum,” he said. “In the meantime, GEO has continued to make big donations using corporate subsidiaries.”
According to the National Institute on Money and Politics, GEO Group subsidiaries have given money to Super PACs supporting other Florida Republicans, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and U.S. Representatives Brian Mast and Matt Gaetz. All told, the company has given nearly $1.9 million to various GOP Super PACs since 2015. In Florida alone, where GEO Group is headquartered – at an address shared with its subsidiaries – the firm has donated over $8.7 million to various Republican political campaigns, and another $8.4 million to political lobbyist groups who promote private prison enterprise.
The Obama administration decision to move away from private, for-profit prison contractors was premised upon findings by the Office of the Inspector General that determined for-profit-prisons are less safe and no less costly than public facilities. In a separate lawsuit filed in 2017, CLC sought to compel the Trump administration to provide other evidence that might support reversing this policy. In June of that year, a court ruled in CLC’s favor that the administration had failed to provide such evidence. Yet the policy didn’t change. For-profit prisons, and specifically GEO Group, have continued to thrive.
Meanwhile, a Super PAC formed in March 2019 to support the re-election of Maine’s U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R) released the names of its donors as required by law. One of them was GEO Acquisition II, yet another subsidiary of GEO Group. The Collins-aligned Super PAC, known as “1820,” the year Maine was admitted to the Union, has already spent some $700,000 on media ads in support of the 67-year-old senator, who faces a strong Democratic challenger this November in 48-year-old state House Speaker Sara Gideon, who has already raised $4 million in contributions.
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