By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
If political contributions and Tallahassee lobbyists are any measure, Boca Raton’s The GEO Group is the odds-on favorite to win a super-sized contract put out to bid this week in Tallahassee to privatize state prisons across South Florida.
GEO is among a trio of corporate titans expected to be in the hunt for the hundreds of millions of dollars the state will pay the lone successful bidder over the next five years to manage and operate those 29 prison facilities.
State records, however, show that since Oct. 1 GEO and its political action committee donated $685,500 to the dominant Republican Party of Florida, while paying seven lobbying firms as much as $360,000 to influence state decision makers. That spending is more than 10 times greater than that of its closest competitor, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
The prisons targeted for privatization house about 20 percent of the state’s nearly 102,000 inmates. They include two Broward facilities – the 753-bed, all female Broward Correctional Institution on Sheridan Street off U.S. 27 in Pembroke Pines and the Hollywood Work Release Center at 8501 W. Cypress Drive.
Also on the list are seven Miami-Dade prison facilities, including the Dade, Everglades and Homestead Correctional Institutions, and five more in Palm Beach County. Other effected counties are Monroe, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee, Hardee, Desoto, Hendry, Lee and Charlotte.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss, who oversees the nation’s third largest inmate population, calls what’s happening “the most aggressive privatization effort in the country.”
WORRIES OVER LOST JOBS
State prison guards fear the loss of jobs and benefits. The department has sought to assuage those fears with assurances that officers in existing state facilities will be given the opportunity to relocate to another state-run prison elsewhere in Florida. But earlier this month, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which represents state correctional officers, sued the state in Leon County in an attempt to block the deal.
The Legislature included the outsourcing plan in the 2011-2012 budget this spring in hopes of reaping “substantial” annual savings for the state. That’s defined by statute as at least seven percent lower than current prison costs. Gov. Rick Scott signed off in May. By law, no contract can be issued if those savings aren’t achieved.
Florida has 144 prison facilities. Six are run by private operators that include Geo, CCA and a third expected bidder, Utah-based Management and Training Corp.
The average annual cost to house an inmate in Florida in 2009-2010 was $19,469, or $53.34 per day, according to the department’s annual report.
The state’s 27-page request for proposals issued Monday identifies 11 correctional institutions and 18 satellite facilities in southern Florida that are set to be turned over to private enterprise for five years beginning January 1. There is a five-year renewal option.
The job does not include providing prison health care services. That large cost is expected to be bid out separately next month.
Bidders must meet the same requirements as a state-run prison. The corrections department, which will manage and monitor the contract, has said it is seeking a single vendor to allow for continuity of services and economies of scale.
Buss’s office said he will make the final decision on who gets the contract after receiving bid scores determined by an evaluation committee whose members have yet to be named. The contract won’t be awarded until the Legislative Budget Commission signs off.
Proposals are due September 23. A decision will be announced November 15.
The department says the contract will be awarded to the “lowest responsive and responsible bidder.” But the prison companies, particularly GEO, nevertheless have spread money around in Tallahassee.
BIG DONORS, INSIDERS AND ROADBLOCKS
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, tried to block the privatization plan as chair of the Senate budget committee with prison oversight. He did not respond to a request for comment. But in May, he told Reuters his efforts failed because of lobbying by GEO and other private prison operators.
“It all comes down to politics and the big donors. GEO and the other private companies that run prisons are very big donors to the party here in Florida and to the elected officials, both past and present,” Fasano said.
GEO did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 2004, GEO has doled out $1.8 million to Florida candidates, parties and various political committees. Contributions by company executives and their wives, including chairman and chief executive George Zoley, and GEO’s PAC push that number even higher.
GEO spent most of that money on Republicans. Republicans currently control the governor’s office and have majorities in the Florida House and Senate.
GEO’s money to Republicans doesn’t include an additional $25,000 the company donated to Gov. Rick Scott’s inaugural celebration in January, the St. Petersburg Times reported in May. The list of inaugural donors made public earlier this year by the governor’s supporters is no longer online.
The paper also reported that Gov. Scott’s transition budget adviser, Donna Arduin, is a former trustee of a GEO real estate company, Correctional Properties Trust.
Since 2001, CCA has contributed more than $370,000 to Florida politicians and parties – again, mostly to Republicans. Management and Training’s lone contribution in Florida was a $5,000 check written to the Republican Party of Florida in December.
The spending pattern for lobbyists is similar.
Senate records show GEO paid them between $220,000 and $360,000 to influence legislators and the executive branch since Oct. 1. Some of those lobbyists are familiar names in Broward Florida: Ron Book, Bill Rubin, Dave Ericks and Brian Ballard, who in addition to running his own lobbying firm is of counsel at the prominent Fort Lauderdale law firm Panza Maurer & Maynard.
In contrast, CCA’s filed compensation reports show that it spent between $20,000 and $50,000 on lobbyists in the same period — most with Smith Bryan & Myers. Management and Training paid GMA Inc. between $10,000 and $30,000.
GEO’s advantage in Tallahassee appears formidable. But because it is based in Florida it has yet another edge.
“If there is a tie, preference would be given to a Florida company,” a corrections department spokeswoman.