WASHINGTON (CN) — A political watchdog says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement failed to respond to a records request on its relationship with GEO Group, a private prison company that donated $225,000 to a Donald Trump super PAC.
Campaign Legal Center filed a federal complaint Tuesday against ICE under the Freedom of Information Act. The complaint cites an August 2016 report from the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, which concluded that “contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP [Bureau of Prisons] institutions.”
The complaint continues: “The OIG report in particular highlighted the problems at private prisons operated by GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison contractors in the nation. 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.” (Brackets in complaint.)
The timing of the prison company’s donations to the Trump super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, is significant, the Campaign Legal Center says.
On Aug. 18, 2016, in one of the last initiatives of the Obama administration, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memorandum “instructing the Bureau of Prisons to phase out the use of privately operated correctional facilities, writing that private prisons ‘compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities’ and ‘do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; [and] do not save substantially on costs.”
(Yates was one of the first high-ranking officials Trump fired, on Jan. 30, 2017, the 10th day of his term, for refusing to defend Executive Order 13769, Trump’s ban on admission of refuge-seekers from certain Muslim-majority countries.)
The day after Yates announced the phase-out of private prisons, GEO Group’s wholly owned subsidiary, GEO Corrections Holding Inc., contributed $100,000 to Rebuilding America now, a Trump super PAC, the complaint states.
“The first contribution came one day after the Obama Administration announced its decision to phase out the use of private prisons, a decision that was immediately reversed after Jeff Sessions became Attorney General in February 2017,” Campaign Legal Center said in a statement.
All this came after “President Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, called … a July 2016 meeting of top donors to Rebuilding America Now, informing them that they were the only super PAC he was addressing,” the complaint states.
On Nov. 1, 2016, a week before the presidential election, GEO Corrections Holdings contributed another $125,000 to the Trump super PAC, according to the complaint.
Also that day, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming the GEO Group and Rebuilding America Now violated the ban on political donations from federal contractors.
GEO responded that the donations were legal: “All of our political contributions to federal super PACs comply with all applicable federal laws and regulations and have been made by GEO Corrections Holdings, a legal entity which does not hold any federal contracts,” the company said in an email.
The Campaign Legal Center called that defense bogus.
“GEO Group and GEO Corrections Holdings Inc. are indistinguishable,” Campaign Legal Center spokesman Corey Goldstone said.
“Their goal with the donation was to influence the federal contracting process, the exact conflict that the contractor ban is designed to prevent. If contractors give money to campaigns, it harms the integrity of the contracting process, and runs the risk of it turning into a bidding war – rather than serving the public interest.”
Campaign Legal Center asked ICE on Dec. 8, 2017, for information on whether it had an operating agreement with GEO to run a prison in Washington state when the donations were made. If so, it says, the donations were illegal.
An ICE representative declined to comment, citing a policy on pending litigation.
The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint to the Federal Election Commission is pending.
GEO Group describes itself on its website as “the world’s leading provider of diversified correctional, detention, community reentry, and electronic monitoring services to government agencies worldwide with operations in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.”
Campaign Legal Center wants to see the documents it requested.
It is represented by staff attorney Mark Gaber.