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The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton.
The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton.
Eflatmajor7th / Wikimedia Commons

Despite Ban, Florida Democrats Still Indirectly Accepting Private-Prison Money

Last year, a group of progressive activists persuaded the Florida Democratic Party to stop accepting campaign donations from private, for-profit prison companies. The industry, which makes billions by locking humans behind bars, immorally incentivizes cities to incarcerate people needlessly, many activists agree. One of America's two largest private-prison firms, the Boca Raton-based GEO Group, is a major donor to both political parties.

The Democratic contribution ban was approved despite centrist members' argument the party needed the money. But GEO Group's cash has still made it into party coffers. It comes from political action committees and lobbyists associated with GEO, state donation records show.

Most obvious, there's the Future Democratic Majority PAC, which accepted a $25,000 contribution directly from GEO October 23. Then, November 1, the PAC donated $5,000 to the Florida Dems. Future Democratic Majority was formed last year by a team of Democratic state senators including Randolph Bracy, Linda Steward, Darryl Rouson, and Lauren Book, the daughter of megalobbyist Ron Book.

The elder Book has long worked as a lobbyist for GEO. And other PACs have contributed to the party after taking his money. One of them, the Leadership for Florida committee, accepted $25,000 from Book September 14 and then donated $10,000 to the state party. Before 2018, the PAC had taken $100,000 directly from GEO. Leadership for Florida is state Sen. Lauren Book's official campaign committee.

There's another group, called Truth & Transparency, Inc., which took $40,000 from Book and $40,000 from the Future Democratic Majority PAC. Then, between October 3 and November 4, Truth & Transparency funneled a whopping $279,000 to the Florida Democratic Party in five donations.

Though last year's resolution says the party must "refuse donations from the registered lobbyists of, and any PACs associated with, private prison companies," Florida Democratic Party spokesperson Caroline Rowland argues that, because the money passed through multiple hands before reaching party accounts, the donations do not violate party rules.

"The Florida Democratic Party did not take money from a private prison or a lobbyist associated with a private prison," she writes in an email. "The party has not taken money from a PAC or an organization with a board member that is associated with or works for a private prison. The Florida Democratic Party will continue to follow in the spirit of this resolution, rejecting money from private prisons and lobbyists who work or associate with them."

The controversy shows how difficult it is to ban powerful donors from state politics. Although companies such as GEO can no longer directly donate to the Florida Democratic Party, they can still easily funnel cash through chains of committees. It's up to party activists to then sort out where PAC money ultimately comes from, a necessary but time-consuming process.

The process becomes even more complicated once lobbyists are factored in. Someone such as Book works for a seemingly endless list of clients and donates money to an avalanche of candidates and committees every year. He's as omnipresent as wallpaper. Though GEO is among his clients, some party members are hostile toward the notion of refusing Book's money. According to state databases, GEO employs at least seven lobbyists besides Book.

Reached by phone, the party's second-in-command, former public relations and political campaign consultant Juan Peñalosa, seemed frustrated that New Times even brought up the issue. He questioned whether the newspaper would also investigate Republican donations from GEO and other private-prison firms (which New Times has done repeatedly) or if New Times was "just going after Dems." [sic]

Via phone, Peñalosa said he did not know anything about the GEO-funded PACs. "I would love to get money out of politics too, but I also have a staff to pay," he said. He added that he knew nothing of the donations and that the party doesn't "check out the donation records of every person" who gives to it.

He also said that Book, for example, "gives to everyone" and that it would, therefore, be extremely difficult to ban him or other lobbyists of his stature from donating to the party.

Civil rights activists within the party last year were frustrated with Peñalosa after he, in their opinion, worked against passing the prison-donor ban. Peñalosa denies that, but New Times previously obtained internal party emails showing he called portions of the ban "extremely problematic" before encouraging the party to water down the resolution's language.

In fact, the party's current stance appears to differ from what Peñalosa himself stated before the resolution was passed: In the email New Times obtained, Peñalosa told party members he was worried the party would be forced to give back donations from PACs that have taken money from GEO or other private-prison firms.

Despite Ban, Florida Democrats Still Indirectly Accepting Private-Prison Money (2)
Florida Democratic Party

The resolution passed with overwhelming support at last year's Leadership Blue Gala in Hollywood, Florida — the party's largest yearly gathering of Democratic activists and party members. But a small minority of members attempted to derail the vote using procedural tricks: Craig T. Smith, the former political director for President Bill Clinton's administration, called for an attendance check seconds before the tally occurred, thus derailing the vote by roughly an hour. During the delay, Smith told New Times he thought the issue was "controversial." He later argued with a left-leaning activist pushing for the donation ban. (At the time, Smith was working on the congressional campaign for Miami Rep. Donna Shalala, a former member of the Clinton cabinet.) Other party members at the meeting, including Broward County Democratic Party Chair Cynthia Busch, asked whether it was prudent for the party to cut off such a large revenue stream.

But other Florida Democratic candidates don't seem to find it controversial to quit accepting money from prison profiteers: For example, all four major Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 agreed to refuse donations from GEO or other similar companies. (The party-level resolution does not ban candidates themselves from taking private-prison donations, but the measure does "encourage" them not to.)

Elsewhere, the Florida Democratic Party's leaders are being strongly criticized after painful statewide losses in the 2018 midterms. Throughout the general-election season, though polls suggested gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson would win their races, the two instead lost to Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott. The losses were doubly devastating given how well Democratic candidates performed elsewhere in America — Florida was one of the few states where Republicans pulled out upset wins over Democrats in major races. One Democratic activist reportedly called the losses "soul-crushing."

The defeats also have critics wondering if Florida is simply a Republican stronghold nowadays. A report last week from Politico Florida confirmed that the large Republican turnout in 2018 seemed more like a presidential election than a midterm year.

There are also signs the Democratic Party failed to even run a competitive race. Veteran Politico reporter Marc Caputo has written that the party was warned, repeatedly, that candidates were trailing Republicans in reaching out to Hispanic voters. But campaigns (especially Nelson's) dithered. Separately, the party's state treasurer, Francesca Menes, quit after the election and told New Times she thought the party ignored her warnings of improper attention to financial issues and insufficient attention to black voices.

The party was also accused of participating in a bizarre scheme to allegedly alter state documents to seemingly let voters "correct" ballot signatures after the deadline for doing so. The public so far knows preciously little about the allegations, including what top party officials knew. Law-enforcement officials have not charged anyone in the probe.

In the meantime, allegations of abuse and neglect at GEO-run facilities continue to pile up. Earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that kids in the 100-plus federal migrant-detention facilities are being used as "bait" to catch deportable adult sponsors or deter immigrants from taking in refugee kids. As part of that suit, the SPLC cited a previous New Times story that revealed when immigrants in Miami's massive migrant camp turn 18, they are often handcuffed and transported to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach. That building is operated by the GEO Group.

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