In February 2008, Florida House budget chief Ray Sansom met with members of Santa Rosa County’s economic development council.
No minutes exist of the meeting with the then-influential lawmaker.
Silence, a businessman involved in the talks wrote two months later, was “of the utmost importance.”
Eventually, Sansom pushed through a $110 million-plus private prison project state corrections officials didn’t ask for. Public prison dorms would be emptied to fill it. Federal subpoenas would dog it.
The early emphasis on secrecy should have been a red flag, said local activist Jerry Couey, who helped unearth the deal. “It’s just my humble opinion, but if it is such a good deal you should be able to talk about it in church, you don’t have to sneak around.”
One month after the Santa Rosa meeting, Sansom flew to Boca Raton, home of private prison operator GEO Group Inc.
Days after that trip, Sansom inserted a whopper into the House budget bill: millions to build a new private prison.
New prison beds weren’t his idea, Sansom told The Palm Beach Post. It was a request from the Florida Department of Corrections, which expected an influx of new inmates.
But while records confirm the agency needed more space, a spokeswoman said it had not been seeking a new private prison.
GEO won the bid. It quickly prepped to build. Just four weeks after securing the deal, the company snapped up 125.6 acres at about $20,900 an acre in Santa Rosa County, home to part of Sansom’s legislative district.
It then resold 58 acres to the state’s prison finance unit for roughly $27,000 per acre, which became the site for the prison. No property appraisals were required to justify the price for the land, where GEO would build and operate Blackwater River Correctional for the state.
Six months before it was slated to open, an unexpected problem popped up: Not enough prisoners.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander inserted a last-minute item to the state’s spending bill. It called for shuttering two state prisons and moving their inmates to Blackwater.
Alexander defended the move, citing estimated cost savings of $20 million. The lawmaker told The Post he based that figure on public prison costs of $65 per prisoner per day, compared with Blackwater’s estimated daily per prisoner costs of $41.
The numbers were off. In 2009-2010, the average public prison cost for an adult male came to $42.46 a day, not $65.
But once the contract was signed, Blackwater had to be filled. State law requires GEO, or any other private prison company, to be paid as though the prison is 90 percent full, no matter how many inmates it houses.
As a result, in its first two months of operation, GEO’s bill to the state topped $82,000 a day, even when the 2,000-bed prison housed only a few hundred inmates.
Eventually, the state emptied sections of public prisons to fill the private facility.
That wasn’t just a matter of shuffling inmates. Blackwater was intended to house and treat special needs inmates.
Internal DOC emails obtained by The Post show that fully 70 percent of Blackwater’s prisoners were expected to need regular psychiatric care or medication — some of the most expensive inmates in the state prison system.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, state officials agreed Blackwater would accept inmates only with milder, less expensive mental or physical illnesses.
Blackwater opened in October 2010.
In April, subpoenas started landing on the doorstep of the Santa Rosa economic development council.
A federal grand jury sought documents on the prison land sale as well as its planning, construction and operations.
Sansom’s travel records and those of his aides were subpoenaed, too. That included records from an aide-turned-lobbyist for a firm representing GEO.
There was speculation Sansom’s trip to Boca Raton was under scrutiny.
But Sansom said he met only with lawmakers during his Boca visit, and that he didn’t speak to GEO about Blackwater or any other prison.
“I didn’t even know where GEO’s headquarters were,” he said. “I had to look it up on the web.”
GEO never has received a subpoena. There is no evidence the company is under investigation.
Asked whether an investigation into Blackwater was ongoing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.