Friday, June 29, 2012

A Glimpse Inside the Industry's Influence in Florida

Florida's leadership is among the most aggressive in the nation in trying to bring private prisons to the state.  The governor, speaker of the house, former speaker of the house, and a host of Republicans in the legislature repeatedly attempted to force through what would have been the largest wholesale privatization of prisons in US history.  Though those measures failed, a battle is still being waged in court over the abuse of the political process by Republicans who tried to force the privatization by putting it into the budget and bypassing the committee that would have normally reviewed it.  The state is now also moving forward with plans to privatize 20 work release centers of the 21 that are still operated by the state, possibly because Governor Scott seems downright determined to put state employees out of work.  Lest you think I'm being unfair, a DOC spokeswoman said the state wasn't likely to save any money in the process, which would have theoretically been the only justifiable reason to do so.

The industry has fared rather well in the state despite the failure to pass the wholesale privatization, but not quite as well as it has with the federal government in taking responsibility for incarcerating immigration detainees.

The GEO Group has been particularly successful in both these arenas, due in large part to the amount of influence it peddles throughout governments.  This influence was apparent during the 2010 election cycle, when the company donated more than $800,000 to campaigns in Florida.  But what's not quite as easy to see is how these companies also gain political influence by having favorable people, and sometimes previous employees, placed in positions of power.  Take for example the chief of staff to young Republican superstar Marco Rubio, Cesar Conda.  Conda still maintains ties to a powerful lobbying firm in Florida that has lobbied for the GEO Group.  In fact, he still maintains partial ownership, and was paid between $50,000-$100,000 by the firm after he became Rubio's chief of staff..  So he's still being paid by companies like the GEO Group while working as the number-one guy to a US Senator.

So the GEO Group has revenues of nearly $2 billion per year, much of which comes from the federal government as payment for detaining immigrants.  It has spent more than $5 million in lobbying and political contributions in the past 8 years, a small fraction of their overall revenue, and in doing so has greatly expanded its role in the immigration detention system.  They also now have a paid lobbyist working in the office of a Republican Senator at the forefront of the immigration debate, in a state with major immigration issues.

In the state legislature meanwhile, President of the Senate Mike Haridopolous, one of the biggest proponents of the aforementioned failed privatization measure, has a really cozy relationship with a lobbyist as well.  He steered millions of dollars to a company that monitors juveniles for the state, after it had come to light that the company had failed to meet many of the terms of its contract.  But he went a step further - he removed the competitive bidding process as a last-minute budget move (sounds familiar...), assuring the company, which employes his close friend as a lobbyist, would maintain the contract.  The secretary of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice even wrote that "the use of this exemption from competitive procurement may not be in the best interest of the state."

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