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Texas Watchdog looks at the big bad private prison lobby

Matte Pulle at Texas Watchdog published another excellent investigation on the private prison industry's work in the Texas Capitol last month. In his previous reporting on the private prison industry, Pulle detailed the personal and financial links between state legislators and GEO Group. This time, he details the role lobbyists played in sinking common-sense reforms to laws governing private prisons during the 81st legislative session.

In his report, Pulle explains that GEO Group's lobbying team is particularly well-equipped to defeat even modest improvements to oversight of the private prison industry because of its large lobbying expenditures and the close personal relationships its lobbyists have to Texas Legislators. From Pulle's investigative piece:

"...it’s not just the GEO Group’s expense account that makes it noteworthy. A lot of companies pay top dollar for a crew of lobbyists. But few of them can match GEO’s well-connected team, a team that, over the last two sessions, have helped the outfit expand their business and beat back efforts to regulate their operations."

Pulle interviewed TPB's Bob Libal for his latest expose of the private prison industry, and he and referenced Watch Your Assets, a 2008 report from Texans for Public Justice and Grassroots Leadership which includes a list of private prison lobbyists from 2007. From Pulle's report:

"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."

...

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."

Pulle also traced the role at lest one lobbyist played in killing HB 3903 in his investigative piece. As Nicole reported in May, we received word that private prison lobbyists were in the halls of the capitol undermining a series of reasonable reforms, including HB 3903. HB 3903 was a bill filed by Representative Solomon Ortiz, Jr. which would have subjected private prisons to the same open records law as public facilities, mandated public hearings before privatization of county jails, and made it illegal for a public servant such as a Sheriffs to be paid by a private prison corporations in addition to their regular salaries.

Pulle writes that Representative Jerry Madden, former chair of the House Corrections Committee, admitted to Texas Watchdog that he talked with GEO Group Lobbyist Michelle Wittenburg before joining with six other legislators to remove the bill from consideration by the full body of the Texas House:

"...the Richardson Republican says that just because he talks to lobbyists doesn’t mean he listens to them alone. In this case, though, he agreed with Wittenberg’s position that Ortiz’s bill would have singled out prison companies to comply with open records laws when other private firms have no such mandate."

Madden's logic misses the point a bit. Ortiz's bill merely would have subjected private prison companies, which perform a governmental function, to the same open records requirements as public prisons. It is difficult to understand how the former chairman of House Corrections, who examined problems at the the GEO-managed Coke County facility, wanted to kill a bill that would have provided badly needed sunlight to the private prison industry in Texas. Texas doesn't even collect basic information on their privately-managed facilities, as Lauren Reinlie of Texans for Public Justice noted in Watch Your Assets:

In response to requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act, however, the TDCJ acknowledged that it does not collect basic statistics about private facilities, numbers that it routinely gathers for facilities that it operates itself. TDCJ officials say that its inspectors monitor some employment information during site visits but the agency could not provide staffing numbers for its private facilities. The requested data that the agency did not provide were records on: the number of guards each facility employs, the guard-to-prisoner ratio, guard disciplinary data, and enrollment in drug-treatment programs.9 Such lax oversight is remarkable given that the state spends $200 million a year on these facilities, which control the lives of 16,000 people.

Pulle's report is essential reading for those interested in the role private prison lobbyists played in the last legislative session.