McLennan County is shaping up to be the biggest private prison fight in the state right now, and the rhetoric keeps getting hotter. We've reported that a CEC/CiviGenics proposal to take over the existing county jail was defeated last week. Now, a proposal for a new 1,000 bed private CEC/CiviGenics jail is under fire as well.
The Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas or CLEAT, the union representing jailers in McLennan County, is calling for an investigation into potentially improper dealings between county officials and the private prison corporation. According to another good article by Waco Tribune writer Tommy Witherspoon,
A spokesman for the state’s largest law enforcement association is calling for state and federal investigations into dealings between McLennan County officials and a private detention corporation as the county continues to negotiate jail contracts.
“First of all, we don’t believe anything that officials in McLennan County say anymore,” said Charley Wilkison, political and legislative director for the 16,500-member Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas. “The credibility gap in this county is incredible.”
According to the article, the CLEAT's concerns center around Sheriff Lynch's acceptance of additional money from the private prison corporation on top of his county salary, and whether that relationship has tainted his ability to objectively decide on the issue of privatization.
Wilkison said he will ask Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to investigate whether Lynch violated the Texas Public Information Act by failing to respond to CLEAT’s open-records requests for all correspondence between Lynch and CEC officials.
He said he also is seeking state and federal investigations about whether Lynch lawfully and ethically can accept money from the private vendor or whether it is a conflict of interest when he helps decide the fate of the jail system.
“The sheriff has taken $91,000 of personal money that goes into his bank account, and then he says: ‘I am still able to decide. I am still OK deciding whether it is in our best interest to privatize.’ That old dog won’t hunt. Nobody here believes that.”
Even more damningly, the allegations from CLEAT also include that the Sheriff has manufactured an overcrowding crisis as an excuse for privatization and expansion of the county jail - an account which, if true, is certainly well beyond the pale.
"We think inmates are being kept in jail to create an artificial public safety crisis so the hue and cry for a new jail can come and the new jail can be privatized and built by CEC,” Wilkison said.
Lewis scoffed at that notion and said Wilkison’s claims are off-target. He said Lynch is paid the same in the contract with CEC whether there are 300 prisoners or none.
“It is still his responsibility to oversee that jail,” Lewis said. “By statute, it is the sheriff’s responsibility, whether it was Jack or Larry. That contract has not changed, and up until 20 months ago, we didn’t have a prisoner in that jail. So does that logic make any sense?”
Wilkison also charged that Lewis’ office is using “stalling tactics” by asking for an attorney general’s opinion about whether his office has to release 170 pages from CLEAT’s open-records request that Lewis claims are attorney-client privilege. Wilkison said Lewis’s office has released 1,300 pages to CLEAT pursuant to the
“We believe somewhere in that 170 pages will be some of the information that will tell the tale about how you get only one bid on a private prison,” Wilkison said. “If they have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to worry about. If they have done nothing wrong, then they should release it anyway."
The dispute has apparently spilled over into today's County Commission meeting. According to the Waco Trib blog,
McLennan County commissioners debated for two hours this morning without resolution on whether a private company should operate the downtown jail, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Mashek said that County Judge Jim Lewis violated federal antitrust laws by allowing a Houston contractor to visit the county jail in August 2007, a year before the county requested proposals for construction of a new jail.
The county received one proposal from Community Education Centers, which has had a contract to operate the downtown county jail since 1999.
The contractor that visited, Hale Mills Construction Ltd., was named by CEC as a contractor/builder on the proposal it submitted for the new jail.
Mashek said the visit allowed Hale Mills representatives to have an unfair advantage in the county’s request-for-proposal process.
We'll keep you updated as this dramatic story from McLennan County continues...