February 5, the private security firm G4S Solutions — a for-profit company founded in Coral Gables that transports inmates for the government — donated $10,000 to the Florida Democratic Party. The money came through G4S's political action committee.
In past years, the donation might have seemed ethically questionable but not an outright source of controversy. But now it is. That's because, in June 2018, the Florida Democratic Party passed a resolution stating it would stop taking donations from any private prison companies or any PACs or lobbyists associated with them. The rules state the "Florida Democratic Party will lead by example and refuse any donations from private prison companies, namely C.C.A. and GEO Group" and "will additionally refuse donations from the registered lobbyists of, and any PACs associated with, private prison companies."
The donation ban does not list any sanctions if those rules are violated. But the news is sure to upset civil rights advocates and critics of money in politics, who already worry the party’s leadership is too reliant on large corporate political donors.
Whether the party made the right decision in accepting the money depends upon whether it considers the Jupiter-based G4S to be a "private prison" company. The company itself does not run or own any prison facilities in the States, but a significant portion of its business includes transporting inmates between jail or prison facilities on behalf of local governments. The company, for example, provides inmate transport services for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office — and in 2018, a Pinellas County inmate died while being transported in a G4S van.
G4S is also a large contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded more information from ICE over the ways in which it uses G4S transport services after a series of detainees alleged they'd been shackled in a windowless van and denied food for hours in ICE custody.
G4S also runs private immigrant-detention facilities in other countries, such as the United Kingdom. In 2017, a U.K. watchdog agency demanded answers after a BBC report exposed horrid conditions at a London-area immigrant-detention facility. The head of the U.K. Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2017 told the Independent that the report exposed "deliberate acts of humiliation and abuse and unacceptable behaviour towards detainees who are mentally unwell and vulnerable."
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The Florida Democratic Party's executive director, Juan Peñalosa, did not respond to messages from New Times yesterday. But Peñalosa has repeatedly butted heads with activists in his party over the donor ban. In 2018, New Times obtained internal emails showing Peñalosa tried to water down the resolution's language for fear the private-prison donor ban would be "extremely problematic" for future fundraising efforts. Center-aligned party activists that year also attempted to handicap the measure so it wouldn't pass, but thanks to the efforts of criminal-justice advocates who pushed for the vote, the party passed the measure during the 2018 Florida Democratic Party Blue Gala.
Activists pushed for the measure due to the outsize role one prison contractor — the Boca Raton-based GEO Group — plays in local, state, and federal races in Florida. The company rains donations on elected officials and recently hired former state Senate President Joe Negron to work as its chief lawyer. But the company has also been accused of abusing detainees and is the single largest contractor for ICE. Activists argue the company's business model is immoral.
Bizarrely, GEO and G4S have a common ancestor: founder George Wackenhut. G4S was founded as a private security firm in Coral Gables in 1954. The company was then known as the Wackenhut Corporation. GEO Group began as Wackenhut's private-prison subsidiary, the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, which was later renamed GEO. Wackenhut then merged with the Danish firm Group 4 Falck in 2002 and later became G4S. In 2003, GEO's current owners bought the company's shares back from G4S and formed a separate business.
In January 2019, New Times reported that private-prison money was still indirectly flowing into the Florida Democratic Party's coffers. The money was essentially being laundered into the party's accounts: Multiple PACs accepted cash from GEO Group or its lobbyists and then donated directly to the Florida Democrats. A party spokesperson stated the Democrats didn't believe this counted as a violation of their own rules. And Peñaolsa flatly told New Times: "I would love to get money out of politics too, but I also have a staff to pay."