Democrats Split on Accepting Private-Prison Donations

In TYT Investigates by TYT Investigates1 Comment

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) tells TYT that he stands by accepting donations from private-prison companies, while new campaign filings reveal Dems are increasingly rejecting money from these donors. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

By Alex Kotch

Numerous Democratic politicians have begun rejecting donations from private-prison companies contracted by the government to detain undocumented immigrants, TYT has learned. The political action committee for one of the largest, GEO Group, filed a new campaign-finance report on Tuesday revealing some of the rejections, after TYT reported last week on the company’s Democratic donations.

While some Democrats are defending the donations even in light of government treatment of immigrant detainees, Democrats who told TYT they are rejecting private-prison cash include party leaders such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. The new filing shows that at least two other Democratic senators declined contributions, as well.

GEO Group and fellow private-prison operator CoreCivic have profited handsomely from the government’s harsh immigration policies, scoring hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal contracts to detain immigrants. The Trump administration has said it will increase the number of detainees.

Many of these government contracts come from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security tasked with rounding up undocumented immigrants. GEO Group was awarded several lucrative ICE contracts in late 2017 and some smaller contracts this year.

Despite the Democratic Party’s stated opposition to government-funded private prisons and toward Trump’s immigration policies in general, several Democrats in Congress are holding on to thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions from the two prison companies. TYT previously reported that these Democrats had accepted thousands of dollars from the PACs for GEO Group and CoreCivic, as had the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The political committees of Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, have received a total of $16,500 so far from the companies during the 2017–18 election cycle; his campaign accepted $10,000 from GEO Group PAC and $1,500 from CoreCivic PAC. An additional $5,000 from GEO Group went to his leadership PAC, Texas First. Cuellar told TYT:

“I have never allowed a contribution of any size to influence my opinion, period. The fact is that GEO is one of the largest employers in my district and plays an important role in maintaining our public safety. Because ICE does not own detention centers, they rely upon private contracted facilities to accommodate the large population of adult criminal aliens. Without them, rapists, murderers, and other offenders would not be incarcerated and instead present a clear threat to our communities. For this important reason, I strongly oppose ‘catch and release’ policies. I have also continued to work to address this issue by adding more legislative language expanding transparency and accountability on contracted detention facilities than any other member of Congress.”

Cuellar’s reference to “rapists” and “murderers” echoes language that Trump often uses when discussing undocumented immigrants. The Texas representative has in the past addressed allegations of official misconduct, including “reports about inappropriate and demeaning treatment of detainees by contract guards” at ICE-funded facilities. GEO Group has faced numerous complaints, including allegations of sexual assault and forced labor, and related lawsuits.

Another Texas congressman and Blue Dog Coalition member, Democrat Vicente Gonzalez, defended accepting a $2,500 donation from GEO Group PAC. In an email to TYT, he said:

“It does not matter who is in charge of the facilities, whether it is the government or the private sector. Whoever can do a superior job should handle the particular facility. Sometimes, it is government and sometimes, private business is better than government. This should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. However, they should all be held equally responsible and to the highest standard.”

GEO Group operates numerous facilities in Southern Texas. The company told TYT, “Political contributions to candidates at the federal level are made through GEO’s Political Action Committee, which is exclusively funded through voluntary, non-partisan employee contributions, and these contributions should not be construed as an endorsement of all policies or positions adopted by any individual candidate.”

Additional Democrats who appear to have accepted campaign or leadership PAC donations from GEO Group and CoreCivic include Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Many Dems Say ‘No Thanks’ to Private-Prison Cash

GEO Group PAC filed an erroneous campaign finance report earlier this year that included numerous attempted donations to Democrats who rejected the offers. The company PAC filed a new report on Tuesday detailing refunded amounts returning to the PAC’s account. At the time of this article’s publication, the offices of Tester, Manchin, and a few more Democrats had not returned TYT’s requests for comment.

However, a few Democrats reportedly had already gone public as rejecting private prison cash. And now several more have given statements to TYT confirming that they are doing the same:

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.): “We did not solicit the contribution from GEO Group PAC and returned it,” Lisa Tucker, political director of Swalwell’s campaign, told TYT. “We decided to make it a policy not to accept private prison donations because studies found for-profit prisons have lower staffing and training and have more violence and are less secure than public-run prisons. There is also doubt that privately run prisons actually produce any cost savings, but they are certainly profitable for the companies who run them.”

Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.): “HECK PAC received a $1,000 check in May 2017 from [GEO Group PAC],” James Rolph, Heck’s campaign manager, told TYT. “Prior to your inquiry, HECK PAC donated this money to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees in Central and South Texas. The campaign committee never accepted money from the PAC you referenced.”

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.): Responding to TYT’s report last week, Sawyer Hackett, a spokesman for Price’s campaign, said Price had previously returned a $1,000 campaign donation from GEO Group PAC. Hackett told TYT, “In light of the Trump Administration’s cruel and inhumane family detention and child separation policies, Congressman Price decided to return a donation from an operator of private detention facilities and to donate to a leading immigrant and refugee advocacy organization.” Price’s $5,000 donation went to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.): Jeffries Communications Director Michael Hardaway told TYT that the campaign rejected an attempted $1,000 contribution from GEO Group PAC. “Congressman Jeffries has never received a dollar from a private prison,” he said. The Jeffries campaign has never reported receiving a donation from GEO Group or from CoreCivic.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): A spokesperson for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) told TYT that she rejected an attempted GEO Group PAC contribution and alerted the Federal Election Commission to the PAC’s filing error. GEO Group confirmed with TYT that it reported the contribution in error.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.): A spokesperson for Bass told TYT that an attempted $1,000 donation from GEO Group PAC was declined.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.): Phil Scaglia of Powerful Performance Solutions, which manages the Cleaver campaign, told TYT that Cleaver did not receive an attempted $1,000 contribution from GEO Group PAC but did not offer any more details.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Hawaii): A spokesperson for Lieu said the campaign never received a donation from GEO Group PAC, despite the PAC having reported giving, then voiding, $1,000. Lieu’s campaign would have returned any contribution from the company, the spokesperson added.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.): Davis kept a $1,000 donation from GEO Group PAC but told TYT, “As part of our Re-Entry effort we take children to the Sheridan Prison to see their fathers. This year we took two bus loads of children and their families. Cost of the bus trip $1,200.00. GEO Group PAC paid for one of the buses.”

Additional Democrats who, based on the new GEO Group PAC filing, appear to have rejected private-prison donations include Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

A few other Democrats had already gone on record explaining why they rejected private prison donations. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) donated contributions to charity.

Luján leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which accepted a $10,000 contribution from GEO Group PAC in November. The DCCC did not respond to questions about this donation and about four lobbyists with ties to private-prison companies who also fundraise for the DCCC.

It’s not clear whether the rejection of private-prison cash will spread to other candidates or to the party establishment. On Sunday, however, the Florida Democratic Party announced a new policy to reject all private-prison donations, including from lobbyists who represent such businesses. GEO Group is based in Boca Raton, Florida.

The private-prison industry donates far more money to Republican candidates than to Democrats. GEO Group and CoreCivic each donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee, and a GEO Group subsidiary donated $225,000, possibly illegally, to a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016.

TYT’s inquiry comes at a time when more and more progressive politicians and candidates including New York Democrats Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon, are calling on ICE to be abolished. While many Democrats aren’t comfortable advocating for ICE’s abolition, plenty are swearing off campaign donations from the companies as associations with private-prison operators is becoming increasingly toxic to voters.

Alex Kotch is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Nation,, International Business Times, and Sludge. Follow him on Twitter.

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