Private Prisons and Presidential Politics
A recently publicized audio recording of Mitt Romney’s conference call with members of the republican-friendly National Federal of Independent Businesses raises concerns over the often symbiotic relationship of business and politics. In fact, the subtext of this entire election cycle has more or less been a debate between how best to balance private gain demanded by capital and public good required of a democracy.
Throughout his 29-minute call the former Massachusetts Governor provoked business owners to own up to their political beliefs at the workplace. “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections. And whether you agree with me or you agree with President Obama, or whatever your political view, I hope, I hope you pass those along to your employees.”
Although the somewhat histrionic recording has gone viral, it misses the point. Even if employers refuse to articulate their political predilections to their employees, campaign contributions made on behalf of their businesses are clear enough to decipher.
Take one look, for instance, at Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest publicly traded, private prison firm. In an October press release entitled “Presidents, Politics, and Partnership Corrections” top CCA officials, including CEO and President Damon Hininger, spoke in florid, if disingenuous, generalities concerning the upcoming presidential election. When asked to recommend how employees should show their support for CCA at the polls, Hininger responded, “…the biggest thing is to just participate, period. It’s an awesome responsibility [and] we all have to participate in the election, simply by voting in primary and general election. It’s a wonderful aspect of our democracy to have a say at the federal, state and local levels.”
And when Bart Verhulst, CCA’s Vice President of Federal Partnership Relations, was asked about CCA’s political party alignments he responded by saying that “It’s our job to educate, not elect. It’s important for us to educate, build and maintain relationships with all candidates and elected officials of all political views. We are non-partisan as an organization and do not wish to influence the choices of our voting employees. If nothing else, we encourage our employees to be aware of national issues that may affect our industry and company; we want them to feel engaged, knowledgeable and empowered.”
But is this true? Is it really the case that CCA’s primary political role is educative, pedagogical? It’s a nice fantasy, to be sure, but the nature of CCA’s campaign contributions to federal candidates, political action committees (PACs) and PAC affiliates belies its official policy of political non-alignment. CCA’s PAC—Corrections Corporation of America Political Action Committee—emerged in 2002 as a way for the company to raise and spend money to elect and defeat candidates for office. According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) PACs, unlike Super PACs, are limited in what they can contribute to political causes. PACs can give $5,000 to a candidate committee per election (primary, general or special). They can also give up to $15,000 annually to any national party committee, and $5,000 annually to any other PAC.
Though CCA’s Verhulst repeatedly underscores the importance of “build[ing] and maintain[ing] relationships with all candidates and elected officials of all political views,” CCA’s palpably imbalanced contribution records tell an unambiguously divergent tale.
Over the course of the 2012 election cycle CCA has so far managed to contribute $58,496 to congressional republicans, or nearly 400% more than the $12,500 it has given to congressional democrats. Further, as of August 31 of this year CCA’s PAC donated another $110,600 to right-leaning political action committees, compared to a paltry $9,500 to left-leaning PACs. Taken together, 89 percent of CCA’s political contributions this election cycle have gone to republicans and republican affiliated organizations.
And in no way does this election cycle represent an anomaly. In fact, over the last decade 82 percent of CCA’s total political contributions have gone to republicans and/or republican affiliated organizations.
Even if business owners refuse to indicate a formal political preference, campaign contributions made on behalf of the companies they oversee are more than up to the task.
Although Corrections Corporation of America appears not to have contributed directly to the Obama or Romney campaigns this year, there is evidence to suggest that former Governor Romney has enjoyed a cozy, yet relatively hidden, relationship with CCA in the past. In 1998, Brookside Capital Partners Fund, a Bain Capital affiliate, was selected to restructure CCA—called CCA Prison Realty Trust at the time—after a series of poor investments nearly bankrupted the company.
Despite CCA’s non-partisan political rodomontade the truth is that the totality of the private prison industry, with CCA at the helm, disproportionately subsidizes the party of “small government” which disproportionately awards “big government” contracts to the private corrections industry.