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Money at the statehouse? Prison firms pour it on

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

There’s a simple explanation for why private prison firms rain cash on Florida lawmakers: This is where the business is.

Florida’s is the third-largest prison population in the country. It spends billions to manage its roughly 100,000 inmates.

Since 2000, Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private-prison operator, poured $597,000 into state political parties, election committees and candidate campaigns.

It’s a healthy sum — but one that is dwarfed by Boca Raton-based GEO Group Inc. and its political committee, which cut checks for $3.5 million during that time. Additionally, top GEO executives and their families gave $200,000.

About 45 percent of the prison companies’ spending since 2000 came in just three critical years: 2010 through 2012, when key lawmakers pushed to turn over most South Florida prison operations to private companies. Had the plan passed the Legislature, it would have created a $1.4 billion contract. At one point, that contract could have been awarded to a single company.

GEO spent at least another $2.3 million on lobbyists in those years, according to state records. CCA spent at least $130,000.

When it came to candidates, checks typically topped out at $500, until recently the legal limit on individual donations. GEO gave $231,000 directly to candidates, 76 percent of them Republican.

But when it came to political parties and election committees linked to specific lawmakers, checkbooks opened wider.

Since 2000, GEO and its political committees have given $2.2 million to the Florida Republican Party, 62 percent of its state giving. It gave $276,000 to the state’s Democratic Party.

During the same period, CCA gave 70 percent of its money to the Republican Party.

Senate President Don Gaetz, who championed the 2012 private-prison proposal, received just $2,000 directly from GEO. But the Florida Conservative Majority election committee linked to Gaetz received $50,000 from the firm after the session.

Gaetz said his views on privatization were established long before GEO’s donation.

GEO also contributed $50,000 to Alliance for a Strong Economy, a committee that lists among its leadership former Senate President Mike Haridopolos and former Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

The 2011 budget Alexander oversaw included a last-minute addition privatizing most South Florida prisons. A judge overturned the measure.

“I take considerable offense to any inference that contributions impact my vote or my decisions,” Alexander said. For one thing, he was occupied with other things: “When you are budget chief for four years, you are a bit busy.”

As for the campaign committee, Alexander said, “I had very limited, if any at all, participation in its fundraising.”

Haridopolos, who as 2012 Senate president was credited — and criticized — for strong-arming privatization efforts, got only got $1,000 from GEO from 2002 to 2004.

But when Haridopolos decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2011, GEO jumped: On a a single day, prison executives dropped more than $25,000 into his campaign.

Haridopolos declined requests for comment.

Since April 2012, GEO gave $205,000 for Gov. Rick Scott’s Let’s Get to Work committee. CCA dropped $25,000 into the political committee early this year. GEO Group chief executive George Zoley gave $20,000 to help refurbish the governor’s mansion this year.

Political connections extend beyond money, however.

“Both big companies have a track record of revolving doors,” said Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies Inc., a research and advocacy think tank.

J. Michael Quinlan, who left his job as head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1992, held an executive post with CCA by 2004.

Former New Mexico Corrections chief Joe Williams, who in 2010 refused to penalize GEO and CCA for understaffing private prisons, previously worked for GEO; in 2001 he had been named Warden of the Year.

Arrested for drunken driving in February 2011, Harley Lappin, chief of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was hired by CCA three months later as chief correctional officer.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who received $29,700 from GEO and its executives for his Senate run and another $5,000 for his PAC, raised eyebrows when he named former lobbyist Cesar Conda chief of staff.

Within months, GEO hired the lobbying firm co-founded by Conda, paying them $100,000. The following year, GEO paid Conda’s former firm $120,000. Conda continued to be paid by the lobbying firm under a buyout agreement.

Meanwhile, both CCA and GEO have continued giving: With no mass prison privatization on the radar, and a year before general elections, they’ve dropped $410,000 into Florida campaign coffers since January.

Staff writer Joel Engelhardt and researchers Niels Heimeriks and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.

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