In the 2007 legislative session--before the GEO Group's troubles made headlines-- lawmakers passed a bill that essentially allowed private prison companies to house more inmates, enabling them to make more money off their contracts with the state.
During that session, two of the company's lobbyists had close ties to then-House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Bill Miller once served on Craddick's transition team and as his consultant while fellow GEO lobbyist Michelle Wittenberg had served as the speaker's general counsel. Both were also on hand for the company this session with each slated to make up to $50,000 this year, according to state ethics records.
Also in the 2007 legislative session, the GEO Group enlisted the services of former House Republican Ray Allen, who resigned in the middle of his seventh term a year earlier to become a lobbyist for the company.
He certainly had all kinds of experience. In 2003, Craddick appointed the Grand Prairie Republican to serve as the chairman of the House Corrections Committee even though at the time Allen was lobbying for a private prison company outside Texas.
Interestingly, when Allen decided to quit his elected office, one reason was that he was "tired of being broke," according to the Dallas Morning News. Almost immediately, Allen signed on to join the GEO Group's team of lobbyists and was slated to earn as much as $100,000 from the prison company. He also lobbied for the GEO Group in 2007 with the same pay plan.
The GEO Group's top lobbyist is Lionel "Leo" Aguirre, a former executive with the state comptroller's office. Aguirre is the widower of Lena Guerrero, who became the first Latina chair of the Texas Railroad Commission in 1992 after serving three terms in the state House.
A state and federal lobbyist for the GEO Group, Aguirre topped the list of the state's highest compensated prison lobbyists with a maximum salary at $250,000 in 2007. This year, Aguirre's compensation remained unchanged.
In that same list of hired guns, put together by Texans for Public Justice and Grassroots Leadership, the GEO Group had the four highest paid lobbyists of all the prison companies doing business in Texas. (The GEO Group did not return a call for comment.)
The corrections firm's local attorneys also have close ties to state government. In April, we reported how Carlos Zaffirini, the husband of state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, is a lawyer for the firm and has lobbied on behalf of the GEO Group before the Webb County Commissioners Court. The GEO Group also uses the Brownsville law firm of state Rep. Rene Oliveira as its local defense counsel. The House member’s cousin David Oliveira, a partner at the firm, has represented the company on a lawsuit alleging misconduct that one court described as "reprehensible."
That the GEO Group's lobbyists helped beat back a half a dozen anti-private prison bills is remarkable considering the problems that have plagued the company lately. In April, a state high court upheld a record $42.5 million judgment against the GEO Group after inmates at its Willacy County prison beat a man to death while the warden merely chuckled. Earlier this year a riot and a fire broke out at its Reeves County prison, just two months after inmates took a pair of prison employees hostage.
But the worst incident came in 2007, when state officials closed down the GEO Group's 200-bed youth detention center in Coke County. Inspectors had reported that feces and urine littered the common areas, while the inmates' education program consisted of a daily crossword puzzle slipped into their cell. Inmates would sometimes go 72 hours without taking a shower, days without brushing their teeth and were sometimes forced to defecate in something other than a toilet. Inspectors also found discrimination based on race.
After the state took action against the company's youth facility, an angry state Sen. John Whitmire, the powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, decided to take action. He ordered a probe into the embattled firm and concluded that it had done a "terrible job" operating the Coke County facility. But for the GEO Group, that rebuke was about all it would ever hear out of Austin.
> A plan to make private prisons operate more openly was squelched. On page 3.
Monday, 06/29/2009 - 10:51AM
INCARCERATING PEOPLE \"FOR PROFIT\" IS IN A WORD....WRONG!
Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to \"job-out\" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing \"The Single Voice Petition\"
Please visit our website for further information: http://www.npsctapp.blogspot.com
\"Practicing Humanity Without A License\"...