A private group of conservative state lawmakers and private-prison-industry representatives discussed and revised Arizona’s controversial immigration bill—both hailed and decried as the toughest in the nation—before it became law. Not only was a Utah lawmaker the chair of that private committee that discussed the bill, but new research also shows that a Utah company—the nation’s third-largest private-corrections company— made campaign donations to the sponsor of Arizona’s law four times in recent years. Immigrants are detained in prisons prior to deportation, so private jailers have a financial interest in tougher immigration laws.
Most news about corporate interests influencing Arizona’s immigration law has focused on Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest private-prison company.
Many news accounts—first from In These Times—revealed the tight connections Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s staff has to CCA. Most notably, Brewer’s re-election campaign chairman’s lobbying company represents CCA, and Brewer’s communications director is a former CCA lobbyist whose wife still lobbies on the company’s behalf. That close connection between lawmakers and the companies that benefit from government decisions extends beyond Brewer’s office.
More recent news accounts from NPR’s Morning Edition explored how CCA had private access to state lawmakers from across the country through a task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that advocates for limited government, free markets and federalism. As a result of those meetings, state lawmakers across the country, including Utah, have plans to introduce legislation inspired by the ALEC’s model legislation that became Arizona law. A CCA representative was a member of the Public Safety and Elections task force of ALEC, a body which was chaired by Utah State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton.
Ray has plans to introduce immigration-related legislation in this year’s session, as does Sen. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, with whom Ray traveled to Arizona this summer for a tour of that state and a review of its immigration issues.
ALEC is ostensibly a conservative, nonpartisan education organization that gathers state lawmakers and industry representatives so they can learn from one another’s experiences and together craft “model legislation” to be introduced in any state legislature.
Ray says the private organization—which charges individuals $2,500 per year for a seat on the committee Ray chairs—is similar to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only corporate sponsors can’t buy a seat at the table at NCSL as they can at ALEC.
Critics complain New York-based ALEC—a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with limits on how it can engage in politics—is lobbying on a grand scale, including hosting parties, sporting events and dinners, and not merely educating conservative lawmakers. Ray says the line between the two is fuzzy.
“Quite honestly, it kind of works hand in hand. When you lobby somebody, you educate them on whatever your issue is,” he says. Ray says private-prison-industry representatives were present at the ALEC meeting when the model immigration legislation was discussed, but “the immigration bill was written by [Arizona Rep.] Russell Pearce [who later sponsored the bill in Arizona] and taken to ALEC, and we fine-tuned it.”
But records of the meeting are not publicly available to verify Ray’s claims. He says ALEC meetings are entitled to privacy because the group is a private organization, and that transparency is only really necessary once lawmakers “take it back to your capitol.” Ray emphasizes ALEC’s limited impact. “Nothing we vote on in ALEC actually does anything with the public. You have to take that back to your state.”
Many lawmakers do take ALEC model legislation back home—and they get it passed.
ALEC’s corporate brochure states, “Historically, during each legislative cycle, ALEC legislators [from across the country] introduce more than 1,000 pieces of legislation based on these models, approximately 17 percent of which are enacted.” Besides Arizona, ThinkProgress.org has shown that lawmakers in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania have paid homage to ALEC’s work by promising to introduce laws similar or tougher than Arizona’s ALEC-approved law.
While records show CCA showered campaign donations on sponsors of Arizona’s immigration bill, Centerville, Utah-based Management & Training Corporation, which operates 20 prisons in seven states, also gave campaign donations in recent years to the sponsor of that bill, Arizona Rep. Russell Pearce.
Arizona campaign-finance records show MTC has donated $1,116 to Pearce since 2004. For a politician with nearly $80,000 currently in his campaign war chest, that might seem small. But a review of Arizona campaign-finance records by City Weekly shows that Pearce may have been the only Arizona politician to receive a donation during that time, except for one donation to a candidate for Flagstaff City Council.
MTC did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
Lawmakers, including Ray in his interview with City Weekly, say that the ALEC-created legislation has no direct impact on prisoner population levels and, thus, no real conflict of interest exists. The whole point is to deport immigrants, not incarcerate them long-term, Ray says.
Still, there’s gobs of money involved in detaining illegal immigrants, as a review of MTC’s contracts reveals, which may explain why prison companies would be so interested in immigration policy.
MTC contracts with the federal government to operate dozens of Job Corps facilities across the country, providing education, training and housing to at-risk youth. But MTC also operates detention facilities exclusively for immigrants, like the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility, located in Post, Texas.
In January 2007, MTC received a $121-million, four-year contract to incarcerate immigrants awaiting deportation at the soon-to-be-expanded Dalby facility. About that contract, MTC spokesman Carl Stuart said the company only responds to customers’ needs, but has not tried to influence immigration policy.
“We feel like it’s our job to do what our customers need. In this case the customer is the federal government,” Stuart told the Standard-Examiner in 2007. “As far as the [immigration] crackdown we are seeing, that’s not our area. We’re just trying to fulfill the needs that are created.”
But that hands-off-politics stance doesn’t explain the existence of MTC’s political-action committee, whose bank account sits at $59,000, and who has contracted with a lobbyist in Texas—the state where it operates more prisons than anywhere—for nearly a decade.
Among the donors to that PAC is MTC’s board vice chair Jane Marquardt, who, with partner Tami, received Equality Utah’s Equality Award this year for contributions to gay rights. The pair also serve as members of the Utah Human Rights Campaign steering committee. Marquardt’s $2,500 contribution to the MTC PAC was given seven months prior to Pearce receiving a $410 donation from that PAC, state and federal campaign finance records show.
MTC was most recently in national news in August after three prisoners escaped from the Kingman State Prison in Arizona, which the company operates. The prisoners are now accused of committing two murders before being recaptured.
(Note: this story was adapted from this earlier blog post)
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