GEO: Gardens security firm started by FBI agent went global


PROFIT, POLITICS, PAIN - Huge profits and sweet setups for Wall Street darlings; rape, squalor, murder in lockups - and the price for Florida taxpayers

PROFIT, POLITICS, PAIN - Huge profits and sweet setups for Wall Street darlings; rape, squalor, murder in lockups - and the price for Florida taxpayers

George Zoley was in a London taxicab with Wackenhut executive Wayne Calabrese in 2003, casting about for their Florida prison company’s new name.

The Palm Beach Gardens company was already established. Started by Zoley as a division of The Wackenhut Corp., the prison business plumped that company’s bottom line for 19 years. Now it was being spun off, independent of its corporate parent. It needed to shed the Wackenhut brand.

Geo, the two men decided. It would be called Geo, in what a company newsletter suggested was a nod to global ambitions: Geo is the Greek prefix for world. That could have as easily been a nod to Zoley, born in a small Greek town.

A decade later, the two men’s global ambitions are more than justified. The Boca Raton firm’s reach extends to Australia, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Last year, revenues topped $1.4 billion.

Wackenhut’s rough and tumble beginnings didn’t hint at a future international prison enterprise. In the mid-1950s, founder George Wackenhut’s fledging security business dissolved after a fistfight with a partner.

The former FBI agent struck out on his own, putting down roots in Coral Gables.

Contracts followed. Wackenhut inked deals to handle security at airports, NASA, federal nuclear weapons sites and embassies.

In 1967, flamboyant Florida Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr. tapped Wackenhut to lead a private, statewide police force answering only to the governor. A “War on Crime” was the stated goal, but Wackenhut infuriated some after reportedly saying his company would investigate not only criminals, but “everyone and anyone who needs investigating.”

Wackenhut by then had purchased 2.5 million dossiers on private citizens compiled by the former lead researcher for Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Some dossiers were sold off, a Wackenhut executive told reporters, but the company was adding 10,000 new dossiers a month.

The controversies did not diminish the company’s success. Wackenhut’s name became synonymous with security.

Board members brought impeccable credentials, including a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a former CIA director and a former CIA deputy director. The CIA presence breathed life into rumors that Wackenhut was a CIA front, an accusation that the company’s right-wing leaning founder dismissed.

By the mid-1970s, George Wackenhut had arrived, living with his family in a 57-room Coral Gables mansion dubbed “Castle Wackenhut,” a British-styled compound featuring a moat, a tower, a pub and a man-made cliff.

But the security business generated small profit margins. Operating prisons was more lucrative, Zoley, then a Wackenhut executive, believed. In 1986, he made a deal to build an immigrant detention center for the federal government.

Tens of millions of dollars in prison business followed, including $32 million to build and run South Bay Correctional in Palm Beach County. Wackenhut, though, had grander goals. It began pushing for Florida to privatize all of its prisons.

That didn’t pan out. However, another deal did: A Danish company purchased Wackenhut in 2002.

Wackenhut’s new owner wasn’t interested in the prison business, and sold it. Zoley and Calabrese, who already headed the prison division, spearheaded the purchase. GEO Group Inc. was born, with Zoley as CEO and Calabrese as president.

There already had been well-publicized stumbles. In Texas, one center for young female offenders made headlines following widespread allegations of rape. In Louisiana, the Justice Department found widespread squalor at a detention center for young offenders.

But shareholders saw promise in the company. Press reports were inaccurate and selective, the company contended. And Zoley told The Post in 2003, “Operationally, we’ve cleaned up our act.”

The stock took off. In 2003, it traded at about $3. Today, shares are in the $35 range.

Zoley has reaped the rewards. Salary and bonuses in 2011 totaled $2.48 million.

On the private side, Zoley, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida Atlantic University as well as a doctorate in public administration from Nova Southeastern — he is sometimes referred to as Dr. Zoley at GEO — began lending a hand to his alma mater.

He chaired FAU’s board of trustees and held a seat on its foundation’s board. He supported increased academic freedom for students and helped slow the search for a new president, paving the way for former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan to take the post.

But GEO’s offer this year of $6 million for naming rights to the university’s stadium provoked unexpected student protests.

Reports of human rights violations at GEO prisons and detention centers triggered them. Civil rights activists, the ACLU and national press quickly picked up on the controversy. The university’s mascot is an owl, and a new national punchline was born: Owlcatraz.

GEO withdrew its offer.

“What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO’s goodwill to financially assist the university’s athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations,” Zoley said.

Any blow to corporate pride was offset by other compensations: The day after GEO withdrew its gift, shares hit $37.19, a 29 percent increase in just four months.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

White nationalist at UF: More than 500 police officers fill campus
White nationalist at UF: More than 500 police officers fill campus

Florida’s flagship public university braced Thursday for a speech and rally by a white nationalist that was expected to bring thousands of protesters – and, some feared, violent demonstrations -- to its campus.  More than 500 police officers from city, county and state agencies were prepared to be on duty during the appearance of Richard...
NEW: Swimmer reported missing off Ocean Inlet Park near Boynton
NEW: Swimmer reported missing off Ocean Inlet Park near Boynton

A swimmer was reported missing early Thursday off Ocean Inlet Park, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews said. The man went into the water near the Boynton Beach Inlet with a woman but didn’t resurface, Palm Beach County sheriff’s authorities were told. Click here for more Breaking News from The Palm Beach Post The man’s friends called...
Freedom Rider recounts activism, Woolworth sit-in for Gardens students
Freedom Rider recounts activism, Woolworth sit-in for Gardens students

A Southern woman whose role in the civil rights movement landed her on the Ku Klux Klan’s most wanted list before she graduated college spoke to students Wednesday at The Weiss School. RELATED: White nationalist’s speech at UF has students angry, wary, curious Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who is white, was a student at Tougaloo College, a...
IDs released on 3 teens dead after car goes airborne on Turnpike 
IDs released on 3 teens dead after car goes airborne on Turnpike 

Florida Highway Patrol officials have released the identities of those involved in a Turnpike crash where a car went airborne and smashed into a tollbooth. The three men who died in the Broward County crash are Matthew F. Bryan, 17, and Kevin F. Bryan, 18, both of Miramar; and Yostein L. Martinez, 18, of Hialeah Gardens.  Cesar O. Pina, 19, of...
PBC school board blasts legal team for blaming girls in sex abuse suit
PBC school board blasts legal team for blaming girls in sex abuse suit

Palm Beach County School Board members harshly criticized their own legal team Wednesday for suggesting in court filings that four young girls were partly to blame for their injuries after being sexually molested 12 years ago by their third-grade teacher. As they approved a $3.5 million legal settlement with the four former students, board members...
More Stories