Monday, November 8, 2010

CCA, immigration and ALEC: the long-brewing national story you only recently heard of

A couple of weeks ago, National Public Radio ("NPR") dropped a bombshell on Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America in the form of a two-part investigative report accusing CCA of influencing Arizona's governor and legislature for the passage of that state's immigrant crackdown law, SB 1070, a measure that is characterized in the report as friendly to CCA's bottom line.

NPR even pulled a page out of the Rupert Murdoch media playbook, painting in ACORN-like dark tones a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council ("ALEC"). According to NPR, ALEC is where private industry members (including CCA) and public servants (including AZ legislators) crafted the wording for SB 1070, even though its meetings are not technically regulated as lobbying. NPR sees a lack of transparency in the birth of SB 1070 via ALEC, alleging that:
legislators were in the hotel conference room with the Corrections Corporation of America the day the model bill [that became Arizona's SB 1070] was written. The prison company didn't have to file a lobbying report or disclose any gifts to legislators. They don't even have to tell anyone they were there. All they have to do is pay their ALEC dues and show up.
The Nashville Scene ran with NPR's story. The national pro-immigrant blogosphere lit up at the news, as well. The Arizona Republic, however, a Gannett-owned sister publication of The Tennessean, was less enthusiastic, penning an editorial saying that NPR overreached in its investigative report.

What did our Nashville neighbor CCA say in its defense about the NPR story?  First of all, some facts about CCA's interests.

In January 2010, the Nashville Business Journal reported that "CCA already owns and operates six prisons in Arizona, which primarily house immigrant detainees and prisoners from other states such as California." Phoenix's local CBS affiliate KPHO reported earlier this summer that over 23,000 people were picked up in Arizona and transferred by local and state officials over to ICE since 2007, and "hundreds of them ended in up [in] CCA facilities." The total bill for the federal population CCA detains or incarcerates in Arizona is $11 million/month, according to KPHO. Former U.S. Senator from Arizona and current CCA board member Dennis DiConcini said in September that CCA is a top-50 employer in Arizona, employing more than 2,700 Arizonans and creating more than $400 million in economic activity in the state.

CCA readily reported last week that "population declines" at its facilities are a business risk. This past summer, Arizona media quoted CCA as stating, "We cannot support regulations that would result in the closing of facilities and the loss of hundreds of jobs in Arizona."

But the company issued a detailed statement flatly denying NPR's claims about CCA's alleged role in crafting the model legislation for SB 1070 and advocating for its passage, stating specifically that
CCA has unequivocally never lobbied or played any role in the passage of Arizona’s immigration law known as SB1070 and has had absolutely no involvement whatsoever in the drafting or writing of the legislation The Company has neither directly nor indirectly attempted to influence immigration policy, including SB 1070, and absolutely did not engage anyone in the Governor's Office on the signing of that bill. As a long-standing stated company policy and practice, CCA does not in any way engage in matters related to legislation that involves inmate or detainee sentencing, criminal code changes or reform.
Accusations of CCA having cozy ties to lawmakers, even via ALEC, are not new or unique to NPR. Take, for example, this 2007 summary by CorpWatch:
[S]ome critics charge that the company's success is related to its deep rooted ties to elected officials. In addition to CCA's record of campaign contributions to the Republican Party since 1997, there are significant connections between executives and government officials. J. Michael Quinlan, former head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has been an executive at CCA for the past decade. CCA’s chief lobbyist in the state of Tennessee is married to the speaker of the house. And CCA is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that writes and pushes bills on policy such as sentencing guidelines.
In a 2008 episode of NOW, David Brancaccio reported, "The next prison market opportunity: companies say it is immigrant detainees," and the web materials for the NOW episode linked to ALEC.

The broader question of whether private prison companies lobby for overincarceration goes way back, long before CCA's mythbusting reports of 2008 and 2007, among others. A 1998 policy study on (a site CCA links to) answers the question this way: "There is little evidence of this kind of lobbying. Do private garbage collectors lobby against recycling? Do day-care centers lobby against birth control?"

So NPR's story attempted to compile such evidence, but it wasn't the first one.  The local CBS affiliate in Phoenix, KPHO, ran a story on August 31 of this year pointing out close connections between CCA lobbyists and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer:
Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaign chairman and policy adviser is also a lobbyist for the largest private prison company in the country [CCA]. Chuck Coughlin is one of two people in the Brewer administration with ties to Corrections Corporation of America. The other administration member is communications director Paul Senseman, a former CCA lobbyist. His wife still lobbies for the company.
National MSNBC host Rachel Maddow latched onto the KPHO reporting (and the Brewer campaign's backlash) in an 11-minute segment (video | transcript) days later.

Before NPR, KPHO, and MSNBC, however, there was The Daily Censored on August 6, asking the same questions. And before that, in June 2010, non-profit media outlet In These Times ran a story on CCA's ALEC and lobbyist connections as they purportedly related to each other and to SB 1070 (check out the degrees of separation between all the players, as illustrated in the attached graphic to the story).

A month before the In These Times story, the Phoenix New Times wondered aloud if Governor Brewer had a conflict of interest in regard to SB 1070, given that the number of
CCA execs contributing to Brewer include the company's top brass: Damon Hininger, CCA President and CEO; "senior administrator" Anthony Grande; Gustavus Puryear, at one time CCA's general counsel; Todd Mullenger, executive VP and chief financial officer; and so on.
The Phoenix New Times quotes CCA VP of Communications Louise Grant refuting the charge, saying that the company executives' individual contributions to Brewer were not meant to influence policy, and that SB 1070 would not be good for CCA.  In 2009, Louise Grant also disclaimed any CCA role in public policymaking, in extended statements to
We are not in the business of making moral decisions on U.S. public policy ... we've worked extremely hard not to get involved in the public policy decisions.
On May 22, 2006, The Tennessean, CCA's hometown newspaper, ran a story under the headline "Immigration crackdown creates opportunity for prison company."  This year, CCA was given Nashville Business Journal's Best in Business Award 2010 in the category for large employers.

CCA's full response to the NPR story is here.

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