Justice

Follow The Money: The Murky Ethics In A DC Prison Contract

CREDIT: AP

The clock is ticking on a controversial proposal to turn over the health care for the thousands of inmates at Washington, D.C.’s two jails to the for-profit corporation Corizon, and the company is using a political insider to push for approval of the contract.

Though not officially listed on Corizon’s lobbyist disclosure forms, DC Council members confirmed to ThinkProgress that businessman Max Brown has been calling, texting and visiting them, urging them to vote for a plan to get rid of the local non-profit that has served the DC jail since 2006. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Brown is widely known as one of new DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s biggest fundraisers and closest confidantes. According to the DC Office of Campaign Finance, he personally donated the maximum amount possible to her campaign and co-hosted soirees that brought in much of the cash that helped her win the election last year. He is also a registered lobbyist for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a different company in the private prison industry. According to DC law, “a lobbyist shall file a separate registration form for each person from whom he or she receives compensation for lobbying.” But because DC lobbyists are only required to disclose their activities twice a year, and have to make $250 in three months to be forced to disclose, it’s possible for someone like Brown to have a major influence that the public only learns about long after a vote occurs.

Now, the Mayor is urging the Council to approve the Corizon contract despite the fact that the last mayor withdrew it due to mounting opposition.

Brown has also given money to several Council members he’s now alleged to be lobbying to approve the Corizon contract, including Independent At-Large member David Grosso, who told ThinkProgress that this is a perfect illustration of how the city’s contracting process “gives every opportunity for unethical behavior.”

“Lobbyists come like they’re doing now with this guy Max Brown trying to get us to vote on this,” he said. “It’s a problem. We have conflicts in the Council. We’re only 13 people, so it’s easy to get one member to do what you want them do to and have a big impact. I tell lobbyists all the time that meeting with me is a waste of money, but does that mean they’re not knocking down my door? They are. I’m very frustrated by it. I want to tell them, ‘You’re slime balls,’ but I can’t.”

Grosso noted that Brown and other lobbyists also send him text messages, which are not under the transparency laws that cover e-mails. The office of Council member Mary Cheh said Brown visited her with Corizon executives in tow on March 11. The office of Council member Jack Evans said Brown requested a meeting on the Corizon contract, but they declined.

As the largest provider of prison health care in the nation, Corizon has contracts with jails in 27 states caring for more than 300,000 inmates around the country. They have also come under scrutiny multiple times for how they acquired those contracts, with several accusations of conflicts of interest.

In Alabama, where the company fought a lawsuit for unconstitutionally neglecting and abusing prisoners, both the head of the Alabama Department of Corrections and her husband were found to have financial ties to Corizon and its subcontractors. This led some state lawmakers to question the fairness of the process that awarded Corizon a more than $200 million contract in 2012. The contract was extended this February. The state and the prisoners’ lawyers have agreed to set up a monitoring system for future human rights abuses.

In Philadelphia, Corizon had to pay a nearly $2 million dollar settlement after it came to light that they set up a fake woman-owned subcontractor in order to meet the city’s requirements for diversity in hiring. The company also gave money to Mayor Michael Nutter’s campaign, and hired a lobbyist firm with close ties to the city. Mayor Nutter subsequently went around the City Council to renew their contract.

By Corizon’s own count, it was sued at least 1,364 times from 2009 to 2014 alone, and more than 400 of those lawsuits remain unresolved.

As DC’s local government has had a decades-long reputation for corruption and cronyism, Grosso said he’s concerned with the impression their latest bidding war is giving to the public.

“I’m not saying [Muriel Bowser] is pushing the Corizon contract because of the fundraising and donations, because I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly smells bad,” he said.

In meetings with Corizon last year, Grosso said he challenged the company’s executives on why they wanted the contract in the first place, considering the jail is a relatively small one whose prisoners have fairly severe health needs. According to the Council member, the CEO responded that DC would be the perfect place to show off their services to members of Congress, which would help them secure more federal prison contracts.

“Nothing offends me more than that,” Grosso said. “You’re going to just use my people as little side shows for your business? That’s not what I want to hear.”

Corizon has publicly stated that their interest in the DC contract is to “genuinely care for people by taking the time it required to keep them healthy and/or move them towards better health.” The company did not respond to questions from ThinkProgress by the time of publication.

If the Council does not vote on the contract by May 2, the proposal is considered rejected.