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PLN sues Geo Group for public records

Miami News Herald, Jan. 1, 2005.
PLN sues Geo Group for public records - Miami News Herald 2005

Jail builder faces open records suit

Dec. 2005

Group says Graceville prison operator violated Sunshine Law

By Anthony Cormier

News Herald Writer 522-5134 /

A South Florida company hired to build a prison in Graceville and recently scolded for overbilling the state now faces allegations that it violated the Sunshine Law by withholding public records.

The Geo Group Inc. -- a sprawling corporation that claims 28 percent of America's private prison market -- was accused Friday of ignoring a request for scores of documents related to its contracts with three Florida facilities, including audit records, lawsuit payments and court injunctions.

The company now has until later this month to respond to a public records lawsuit filed by Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit watchdog organization that publishes a monthly newsletter on prison issues and prisoners rights.

According to the suit, PLN claims it requested in April information related to lawsuits that resulted in settlements or verdicts against Geo Group, as well as contract audits, violations and court-ordered injunctions. The company responded, according to Editor Paul Wright, with a simple spreadsheet that provided a limited amount of information related to one category of the request.

Wright said he then submitted a second request in September and since has been stonewalled.

"I do a lot of public records stuff and try to be fairly conservative with the requests," Wright said in a telephone interview Monday. "I guess when Geo or (Corrections Corporation of America) or the Department of Corrections in Florida and Washington get a letter or a phone call from PLN, they know it's not going to be good news."

"So they're pretty hostile with us. They hem and haw. That's the way they operate."

Florida's Sunshine Law is among the nation's most broadly sketched open-government statutes, giving citizens considerable access to most meetings and documents generated by public officials.

Exceptions to public records are numerous, with legislators adding between 10 and 20 new exemptions each year. There are currently about 800 exemptions in the law; the most commonly cited are investigative materials, security measures and personal details such as Social Security numbers and medical information.

Private companies such as Geo Group and CCA essentially stand as public entities in their dealings with the state, and are often contractually required to meet Sunshine Law standards. Disputes can be settled by a state mediator, and violations are subject to criminal penalties ranging from fines to a year in prison.

Wright said PLN requested the documents to better understand how Geo Group was spending taxpayer dollars in South Bay, Moore Haven and Deerfield Beach. The company holds contracts to run state facilities in those cities, but also manages prisons in 13 other states and three other countries.

Geo Group officials could not be reached Monday for comment.

According to a 2005 annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company reported $614 million in revenues. Geo Group initially was founded in 1984 as a division of Wackenhut Corporations; that company went public in 1994, merged in March 2002 with a Danish company and in 2003 became the majority shareholder. The group changed its name to Geo Group in November 2003.

Earlier this year, the state awarded the company with a contract to design, construct and operate a 1,500-bed prison in the Graceville Industrial Park. The $68 million facility will house medium-security and close-custody inmates, and is scheduled to open in 2007.

The contract was awarded by the same state agency that publicly rebuked the Geo Group earlier this year, concluding in an audit that Geo and CCA received "questionable contract concessions" and overbilled taxpayers by $12.7 million.

According to an audit by the Department of Management Services, the now-defunct Correctional Privatization Commission -- which was to oversee private prison contracts in Florida -- allowed the companies to bill for vacant positions and avoid minimal requirements for nurses, vocational trainers and teachers.

The commission also allowed inmate welfare funds to be used to cover chaplain and library services that the companies were required to provide. The blame, according to a state spokesman, should be shared by both the commission and the two companies.

"There's responsibility on both sides," spokesman John Kuczwanksi told The News Herald earlier this year.

Said Wright: "I really hate to say this, but there is no 'best' private corrections company. None of them really stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. They all kind of do the same thing: understaff their facilities so they can make a financial profit."