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Scott faces ethics complaint over prison privatization

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By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-986602.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A labor union this week added its voice to the chorus that wants to stop the privatization of South Florida prisons. The Teamsters Union filed an ethics complaint against the Governor for having several conflicts of interest, particularly with two of the largest private prison management companies in the nation. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, some say the Teamsters' complaint is just a stunt and there may not be any merit.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, also known as the Teamsters Union, says Governor Rick Scott has several clear conflicts of interest, two in particular.

In their complaint, the labor union claims Scott had dealings with two of the country's largest private prison corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. Those are now trying to bid on 30 South Florida prisons. Teamsters Public Service Division Director Michael Filler says that includes about 30-thousand dollars worth of campaign contributions to Scott's inauguration fund.

"What kind of conversations did the Governor have with GEO and CCA about this privatization initiative? Because we think there clearly were conversations that occurred if not with himself, then with some of his close aides to push this process forward. We think this conflict of interest is very real and needs to be looked at."

Filler says Scott is in violation of the state ethics code because he used his position for the benefit of GEO Group and CCA. He claims Scott allowed them to bid on the South Florida Corrections' contract and did not disclose his association with the companies, especially the campaign contributions. But, Lane Wright, spokesman for the Governor's office says even the thought that Governor Rick Scott violated an ethics law is absurd:

"There were somewhere between 200 and 300 companies and individuals who donated to the inauguration fund and those donations went through the Republican Party of Florida, not to Governor Rick Scott. Everything was in total compliance with the law. Besides all of that, the prison contract is going to go to the lowest bidder, it doesn't matter who that is, the lowest bidder is going to win. Governor Scott himself has nothing to do with the selection process. So, to say that he's violating some ethics law here is just absurd."

Governor Rick Scott also chairs the State Board of Administration, which is responsible for investing the money deposited in the Florida Retirement Fund. The Teamsters ethics complaint says that position is another conflict of interest, because the SBA has millions of dollars invested in the two private prison companies.

As of the close of business earlier this week, the pension fund owned about 10-million dollars of stock in the two firms. About 9 million of that was in CCA and about 1 million in GEO group. SBA Spokesman Dennis MacKee says much of the stock is managed by SBA staff or just part of the general market. But, members generally have nothing to do with it.

"The vast majority of those holdings are either made as passive investments, you're not making individual stock selections. They're part of the index you invest in or they're managed by external mangers which would be we don't make the individual choice of the stock selection."

But, the Teamsters' Michael Filler says that's what he hopes the Florida Commission on Ethics will look into because he doesn't believe everything is as the governor's defenders are making it seem.

"You've got over close to a million in contributions coming into the state and then the state owning over 7-million dollars in stock in that company. I mean clearly it creates an impression into a reasonable person's mind as to what's going on here and what is the eventual political payoff and either one of these: GEO or CCA can reap huge benefits, if they get this contract, if this process is not stopped."

Not all opponents of prison privatization are on board with the ethics complaint. Take Florida Police Benevolent Association Executive Director Matt Puckett. His Union is already involved in a lawsuit against the state to stop the privatization of prisons, which Puckett says is the best course of action.
He says he's not sure he sees any merit to the Teamsters' ethics complaint. In fact, Puckett says the target of the Teamsters complaint may be a bit misplaced:

"I mean certainly there are a lot of things about prison privatization that stink that I could certainly make a personal opinion to say that maybe some ethics should be challenged. I don't know if there was anything ethically wrong with that arrangement. Rick Scott for one wasn't the person who put privatization forward. It was the Legislature, specifically, the Senate of the Legislature. So, if we're going to do ethics we should look at some of those folks."

The Teamsters Union is currently involved in challenging the Police Union over which will take over the correctional officers' collective bargaining rights. In other words, which union will represent Florida's Correctional Officers.

But, Puckett says the public needs to see the bigger picture:

"The real fight is not the teamsters or the PBA, it's is Privatization the right course of action for the state of Florida?'"

Overall, Michael Filler with the Teamsters Union says all the labor union wants to do is have the Florida Commission on ethics investigate the matter:

"We're saying have an independent group take a close look at what happened here, get some more background information, find out the conversation the Governor had with representatives of these two companies and let's put it all out there. And, until that can be done, this process should be put on hold and maybe should be started anew because it just raises too many questions and it creates an impression of this fox guarding the hen house."

Filler says the union is doing this not only for the good of the correctional officers, but for the good of the public as well. The Teamsters Union filed its complaint on Monday.