We might not learn everything about Florida Atlantic University’s $6 million football stadium naming rights deal from the university’s records. Almost certainly, though, we would learn more than what FAU has said, which is nothing.
This week, first the American Civil Liberties Union and then The Palm Beach Post asked for all records related to the donation from The GEO Group, which was announced Feb. 19. Because the company has a controversial record of running prisons and detention centers, the deal has drawn much criticism. FAU has responded with talking points. President Mary Jane Saunders stuck to them during a Feb. 25 meeting with students, at which she said, “This is a done deal.”
But done how? Did GEO approach FAU? Did FAU approach GEO? Either way, did FAU at any time investigate GEO’s record or wonder whether GEO should be the university’s highest-profile corporate partner? To all those questions, Dr. Saunders and FAU Board Chairman Anthony Barbar have responded by saying that GEO is a Boca Raton-based company that is run by an FAU graduate and employs FAU graduates.
GEO has been no better. Chairman George Zoley did not appear with Dr. Saunders and has taken no questions about the donation or the company’s record. The Palm Beach Post offered Mr. Zoley the chance to discuss both. A GEO spokesman declined, saying the company had rebutted criticisms “on the record” through comments to The Post and an Op-Ed article.
In fact, GEO has talked around the issues, especially criticism of how the company ran the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. GEO claims that the problems predate its management, but the federal judge who excoriated the facility said GEO did nothing in 18 months to improve conditions.
When The Post asked previously for details of GEO’s earlier donations, an FAU spokeswoman refused, citing an exemption to the state’s public-records law for university fund-raising foundations. That exemption, though, applies to donors who wish to be anonymous. The GEO deal of $500,000 a year for 12 years is basically an advertising contract. If the law applied, FAU couldn’t say even how much GEO is paying.
On Tuesday, the same FAU spokeswoman said in an email, “The public records request has been received, and we are working to fill it in a timely manner.” What is “timely?” There was no immediate answer, which shows why the request is important and why FAU has looked so bad over the last three weeks. When you say nothing, it looks like there must be something.
for The Post Editorial Board