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Politics

Teamsters, Governor's Office Clash on Prison Bidding

September 13, 2011 - 6:00pm

The governors office on Wednesday rejected a Florida Teamsters charge that state efforts to privatize prisons in South Florida are linked to political contributions to elected officials statewide.

Gov. Rick Scotts press secretary Lane Wright disputed the contention that the Florida Commission on Ethics will find that violations have occurred in the selection of a company to manage the state jails, a measure the Florida Teamsters would like to derail.

The prison contract is going to go to the lowest bidder, whoever that is, Wright stated in a release. Governor Scott has nothing to do with the selection process.

Florida Teamsters, who are also trying to replace the Police Benevolent Association as the bargaining unit for the state's prison guards, hope the state Division of Ethics can confirm their allegations that a "pay to play" scenario has occurred.

The Teamsters contend there is a link between the political contributions from companies that would benefit from the state privatizing prisons and the decision by the state to do so in South Florida.

We think the conflict of interest is real and its something that will damage the publics confidence in its government, Michael Filler, director of Teamsters Public Service Division, said at a news conference at the Florida Press Association building in Tallahassee.

In filing the ethics complaint, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters claims Scott failed in his duty as chairman of the state Board of Administration, which oversees the states investments in relation to the Florida Retirement System.

The governor, as chair of the state Board of Administration, has a fiduciary responsibility in protecting the financial interests of the people who are part of the Florida Retirement System, Filler said. These people are counting on him and the state board of administrators to make the right kind of decisions on their behalf. Theyre being put at risk in this scenario with the fact that the (governor) has gotten a lot of money from these folks and cant make an unbiased decision in these matters.

The Teamsters noted that Boca Raton-based GEO Group and Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America, both major players in the prison privatization bidding process, combined for nearly $1 million in contributions to state candidates and political parties in the 2010 election cycle. Meanwhile, the state has more than $7 million invested in the two companies.

The Teamsters claim this is gaming the system since Scott, who received contributions from both companiesfor his inauguration fund, "signed into law the largest prison privatization deal the state has seen."

Our elected leaders should look out for all Floridians, said Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local Union 2011, which was recently chartered to represent correctional and probation officers in Florida.

Filler said that the Teamsters believe the two companies bought influence, with the result being the potential layoff of 3,800 state employees.

The complaint says Scott should have put the secretary of the Department of Corrections on notice that GEO and CCA should not be permitted to bid on state contracts to run prisons.

The Teamsters say they havent found any link that the contributions from both GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America went to state candidates, the Republican Party or even Scotts inauguration fund. Filler said that is something they hope the ethics investigators can find.

Its hard for me to get inside the head of the governor, but we tried to call this one as we saw it. We thought this looked and smelled bad, Filler said. A number of papers over the past months have written stories about the amount of money that has come into the state. Thats why were asking the state to investigate this further.

Wright also rejected the idea that the inauguration fund shaped policy.

Between 200and 300 companies and individuals donated to the inauguration fund, Wright stated. And that money went to the Republican Party of Florida, in total compliance with the law, not to Governor Scott directly.

Asked if the Teamsters theory is correct -- that most major corporations in Florida would be banned from doing business with the state because of contributions to the Republican Party, Filler responded that the state needs to make prudent decisions within the public interest.

There is a role for public enterprise in assisting in public situations, but we think this is bad public policy when you put public safety at risk and you talk of job losses we talked about, he said.

A GEO spokesman declined to comment. CCA did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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