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Private corrections companies hoped to cash in on Oklahoma reforms

Photo by Thinkstock
Photo by Thinkstock

Documents released by Gov. Mary Fallin's office show concerns that may have quashed parts of Oklahoma's prison reforms included the role private facilities would have under the new law.

Operators of private prisons in Oklahoma also angled for a slice of the prison reform pie, campaigning to have their halfway houses serve as the “intermediate sanctions facilities” spelled out in the new law to handle low-level offenders who violated terms of their release. Leaders from Avalon Correctional Services and GEO both sought meetings with the governor's office and Corrections Department officials regarding the JRI reforms, records show.

Private corrections and their supporters hand out a lot of campaign donations in Oklahoma politics. Since 2004, private corrections interests and those that represent them have spent more than $400,000 to fund various elected officials' campaigns and political causes, a Tulsa World analysis of Ethics Commission disclosure reports shows.

The amount spent includes $50,750 in contributions for incumbents' 2014 re-election campaigns, the analysis shows.

The $414,397 total spent ranges from a few bucks spent by lobbyists whose clients include a private corrections company to thousands spent to fund political events such as the Oklahoma Speaker's Ball.

Three private corrections companies with operations in the state are the primary donors to political campaigns in Oklahoma — Corrections Corp. of America, The Geo Group Inc. and Avalon Correctional Services Inc.

An April 2012 email from a private prison lobbyist shows he sought a meeting with the governor on behalf of GEO President John Hurley and other executives.

“We would like to hear your thoughts on JRI and future impact on corrections,” lobbyist Brett Robinson wrote.

That email is among more than 8,000 documents released by Fallin's office in response to Open Records requests regarding Oklahoma's stalled prison reform laws enacted in 2012 under House Bill 3052. The records also show an internal document from Fallin's office that listed a “possible concern” of HB 3052:

“Excludes private facilities,” the email notes.

In March 2013, Avalon Chief Operating Officer Brian Costello sent Fallin's staff an email outlining his company's campaign to house the inmates sent to intermediate sanctions facilities under the prison reform law, something they began requesting in 2011.

Fallin's campaign committee is the top recipient of corporate corrections funding, receiving $38,250, through Sept. 30, records show.

Political action committees representing two private corrections companies with interests in the state have donated the maximum allowed, $5,000, to Fallin's 2010 and 2014 campaign committees.

A Fallin campaign spokeswoman said in an email that the donations represent less than half a percent of nearly $11 million raised by Fallin since 2002.

“The $10.9 million raised from the 2002 campaign to the present are donations received from hardworking Oklahomans of every background who have supported Mary Fallin. ... Pick any industry and odds are it will have donated the most to Mary Fallin simply because she has been around the longest and run and won more campaigns than her current peers at the Capitol.”

Speaker's Ball, etc.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon ranks No. 2 in corporate corrections donations, with a combined $35,950 contributed to his campaign committee and a fund that finances the Oklahoma Speaker's Ball.

The three private prison companies donated between $5,000 and $10,000 in late 2012 and early 2013 to the Oklahoma Speaker's Ball Inc., the committee that finances the annual event.

Up-to-date contributions to the 2014 Speaker's Ball were not available as political action committees have until Jan. 31 to file timely disclosure reports reflecting fourth quarter 2013 transactions.

The 2014 Speaker's Ball is scheduled for Jan. 31 in Norman.

Joe Griffin, Shannon's communications director, said in an email: “A majority of the donation funds from this industry (roughly $22,500) were donated toward a nonprofit to encourage the mentoring of our youth through the Speaker's Ball. ... People and entities donate to campaigns because they believe in the candidate's ideals — not because the candidate necessarily believes in theirs.”

Republican state Sen. Clark Jolley ranks third among active, elected officials in private prison donations, receiving $29,301.

Jolley said Avalon Correctional Services and its CEO are located in his district and have been constituents for some time. The company is very concerned about the way private prison companies have been treated during the past several years, especially regarding halfway houses, he said.

“I suspect that a good part is reflected because of that,” Jolley said.

Avalon leads spending

Overall, Avalon Correctional Services leads the three corrections companies in political spending, contributing $156,085 to political campaigns and related interests since 2004.

The Geo Group Inc. was close behind, donating $143,411 to political committees.

Lobbyists who represented both Avalon Correctional Services and Corrections Corp. of America at the same time donated $63,450 to political campaigns. CCA employees and lobbyists hired by the Nashville-based company donated another $51,000 to various political causes.

Prison companies have donated $17,500 to state Treasurer Ken Miller's campaigns, $14,500 to Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and $12,250 to Insurance Commissioner John Doak, all Republicans.

Former gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins led Democratic Party recipients with $11,150 in receipts for her political campaigns. Lobbyists provided about $136,497 in funding with the balance, about $278,000, coming directly from employees of prison companies or their PACs.