WASHINGTON (CN) – Probing the Justice Department’s renewed embrace of private prisons, election-law advocates brought a federal complaint to shed light on the policy reversal.
A specific focus of the suit filed Thursday in Washington by the Campaign Legal Center is whether or how the decision was shaped by more than $200,000 in political donations made by the GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private-prison contractors, to a super PAC that supported then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
The GEO Group received a $110 million contract this past April to build a new immigrant detention center – the first under President Trump’s administration.
Adav Noti, the Campaign Legal Center’s senior director for trial litigation and strategy, said he hopes the requested documents from the DOJ will shed light on the existence of a possible quid pro quo.
“The reason that federal contractors have been prohibited for 75 years from making political contributions is for exactly this reason,” Noti said in a phone interview. “At a minimum it gives the impression that they bought this contract.”
The records at issue include material the Justice Department had relied upon to rescind an Aug. 18, 2016, memo written by then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, which instructed the Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of private prisons.
Yates based the memo on an August 2016 report by the DOJ inspector general that highlighted problems plaguing private prisons operated by the GEO Group.
“Specifically, the report noted that GEO Group’s ‘contract prisons had more incidents per capita compared to those operated by [other contractors] for contraband finds, several types of reports of incidents, lockdowns, guilty findings on inmate discipline charges, positive drug test results, and sexual misconduct,'” the complaint says.
On Aug. 19, one day after Yates drafted the private-prisons memo, the Campaign Legal Center says GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., a GEO Group subsidiary, donated $100,000 to Rebuilding America Now, a super PAC that supported the presidential bid of then-candidate Donald Trump.
Concerned that the donation violated federal law, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 1, 2016.
GEO Corrections Holdings met the query by donating another $125,000 to Rebuilding America Now that same day.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Yates memo on Feb. 21, and the Campaign Legal Center filed a request with the Justice Department on Feb. 28, asking for agency communications that mentioned Rebuilding America Now.
Noti, the group’s senior director, said the DOJ split the request up among the agency’s different components, but has yet to tell the Campaign Legal Center when or if it will provide any of the requested records.
“If this lawsuit we filed today does spur the Department of Justice to give us documents and they show anything even remotely resembling awareness of this contribution in making the decision to go back to private prisons, that will be I think quite, quite damning in the underlying substantive case,” Noti said.
The Campaign Litigation Center notes that private prisons saw their stock prices “rise significantly” in the wake of Sessions’ action.
“Many news reports pointed out that the private prison companies, including GEO Group, that benefitted from the policy reversal had financially supported President Donald Trump’s campaign and inauguration,” the 11-page complaint states.
The Campaign Legal Center’s Noti emphasized that the election commission’s investigation of its November request is ongoing — and that his group could technically sue over that delay.
Going after the Justice Department first, Noti said the agency’s records might be useful for litigation with the elections commission, if it comes to that.
“The judgment of the Congress that made this illegal and the courts that have upheld it, is that even the appearance that a large corporation can buy a contract like that is – the negatives that arise from that appearance make it important enough to ban the practice entirely,” Noti said.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the complaint.
The Campaign Legal Center is represented in the case by Paul Smith.