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15Nov/11Off

New Mexico fines prison company for inadequate staffing

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The New Mexico Department of Corrections is fining GEO Group, a Florida-based private prison operator, $1.1 million for understaffing one of its prisons. GEO manages three of the four private prisons in the state, including Lea County Correctional Facility, where from September of 2010 to March of 2011 one out of every four jobs were vacant.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:

GEO will pay the $1.1 million over several months, the corrections secretary said. In addition, GEO has agreed to spend $200,000 over the next calendar year to recruit new correctional officers for the Hobbs facility.

By contract, New Mexico can penalize The GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America, the two firms that operate the private facilities, when staffing vacancies are at 10 percent or more for 30 consecutive days.

The settlement represents the first time in years — possibly ever — that New Mexico has penalized the out-of-state, for-profit companies for not adequately staffing the facilities they operate.

GEO is the second largest private prison company in the country, after Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and it operates over 60 facilities in 15 states. The company reported $1.2 billion in earnings and $58.8 million in profit during the first nine months of this year.

The Corrections Department has faced criticism in the past for failing to penalize GEO and CCA for understaffing their facilities in the state. Much of that criticism occurred under a previous corrections secretary, Joe Williams, who called the private prisons “outstanding” despite their high number of vacancies. As the New Mexico Independent reported at the time, Williams had also been hired by GEO as a warden at Lea County Correctional, the very facility for which the company is now being fined.

29Oct/10Off

Denish wins most out-of-state dollars but trails Martinez in money

This time around Democrat Diane Denish claimed the eye-popping contributions and raised the most out-of-state money.

But two six-figure contributions and nearly $600,000 in out-of-state money wasn’t enough to power Denish past Republican Susana Martinez in dollars raised during the waning days of the 2010 New Mexico governor’s race, campaign finance reports filed Thursday show.

In the three weeks from Oct. 5 through Tuesday the Dona Ana County district attorney raised nearly $1.1 million, to Denish’s $961,000.

Martinez’s fundraising edge appears to be yet another signal of the Republican’s strength as Election Day nears.

Denish’s strong showing in out-of-state money this reporting period is a turnaround from earlier reports and puts her campaign in an interesting situation. Denish has criticized Martinez for the amount of out-of-state money the Republican has raised, particularly from Texas.

From late June through early October it was Martinez who vastly outstripped Denish in the amount of out-of-state money raised, with more than half of the $3.4 million the Republican collected coming from all over the country.

But in the last three weeks Denish outpaced Martinez in out-of-state dollars, collecting about $570,000 in contributions of more than $5,000. Martinez meanwhile took in nearly $310,000 in out-of-state money in contributions of over $5,000, the reports show.

Unions aid Denish

The vast majority of Denish’s out-of-state haul came from unions, including an Oct. 20 contribution of $200,000 from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a $100,000 contribution Oct. 7 from the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees.

The Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of Teachers each donated $50,000 to Denish’s campaign also.

The Democratic Governors Association also contributed $75,000 to Denish’s campaign, an amended report from Denish’s campaign shows.

While Martinez collected around $300,000 in out-of-state money, she appears to have kept the lead in money raised through big contributions. Martinez raised about $645,000 in contributions of more than $5,000, compared to Denish’s $640,000.

Martinez’s contributions

Martinez also reported some noticeable contributions.

Koch Industries, the company whose owners are among the richest men in the world, donated $10,000 to Martinez. The Koch brothers have made headlines this year for their backing of the Tea Party movement as well as other libertarian and conservative causes.

The private prison company, The GEO Group of Florida, donated $25,000 to Martinez’s campaign. GEO is one of two private firms operating prisons in New Mexico, with the Florida company overseeing three of the four prisons under private management.. The Independent has reported on the GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America’s problems in the state with low staffing levels that could have earned the companies millions of dollars in fines.

Other notable Martinez contributions include $25,000 from SunRay Gaming of New Mexico, LLC, a horse racing track in Farmington, N.M. and another $50,000 donation from the Republican Governors Assocation (RGA). The RGA has donated $1.3 million to Martinez so far this cycle.

Home health care company owner Mary Merrell of Belen contributed $25,000 to Martinez’s campaign. And Larry Mizel, a long-time Republican big money donor and Colorado developer, donated $50,000.

What the campaigns spent

In addition to raising more than Denish, Martinez also spent more in the three weeks covered by the report, with her campaign logging $2.1 million in expenses. Most of that money, close to $1.5 million, was spent on media buys and air time for advertisements, the reports shows.

Denish spent $1.6 million during the period, with $1 million of that expended on radio and TV ads, her report shows.

In other expenses, Martinez spent $122,000 on polling to Denish’s $71,400. Meanwhile Martinez spent $126,000 on voter contact expenses compared to Denish’s $225,000.

The Independent’s Matthew Reichbach contributed to this post.

21Sep/10Off

Sen. Smith: Williams’ work for GEO casts ‘cloud’ over decision not to fine firms

Corrections Secretary Joe Williams‘ prior employment at one of two private prison operators he chose not to fine despite repeated contract violations casts a cloud over his decision, a powerful state senator says.

For years Williams, who worked as a warden for GEO Group before joining Gov. Bill Richardson’s cabinet, has not collected penalties against his old employer and Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) despite increasing evidence that both firms regularly violated a contract rule requiring certain staffing levels at the four facilities they operate.

Williams told The Independent in a previous interview that his decision was based on the good job the two companies had done operating prisons in Hobbs, Grants, Santa Rosa and Clayton. He added that the firms’ contracts give him discretion to penalize or not.

But Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told The Independent on Friday that Williams’ previous employment with GEO casts suspicion over his decision and creates questions of appearance.

“It’s a real cloud on his career,” Smith said of Williams. “That type of generosity will make certain that he is hired quickly.”

Williams will likely be out of a job when New Mexico’s new governor takes over in January—cabinet secretaries are typically replaced when a state’s new chief executive takes over.

Williams acknowledged as much in a recent interview with The Independent.

“They fire guys like me,” Williams quipped.

Asked Friday to respond to Smith’s remarks, a spokeswoman for Williams instead sent an e-mail saying: “Last week Secretary Williams explained his position to you regarding this matter. He has not changed his position.”

Potential penalties never assessed

State records suggest that GEO and CCA might have regularly triggered staffing-level penalties. By contract, New Mexico can levy penalties against GEO and CCA when staffing vacancies at their facilities stay at 10 percent or more for 30-consecutive days.

State records show that staffing levels at three of the four facilities operated by GEO and CCA hovered above 10 percent for much of the last fiscal year. At the fourth facility, the vacancy rate was above the 10 percent trigger in six of the 13 months the state records covered.

One estimate by the Legislature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), has put at $18 million the potential penalties the state has not collected as a result of Williams’ decision.

“If the facilities’ operational quality is not hampered due to high vacancy rates, then the department may be paying for staff that isn’t needed,” LFC staff noted in a 14-page report.

Inadequate record-keeping makes dollar amount elusive

But a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Corrections Department said the agency can’t verify how much in potential penalties the state has given up because of sporadic record-keeping at the four facilities the two firms operate.

“We do not have an estimate of how much in penalties could have been assessed–because we do not have adequate records to demonstrate how long some correctional officer positions remained vacant,” corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland told The Independent.

The corrections agency has a bureau dedicated to making sure the private prison operators meet contractual obligations, but the inadequate record keeping — and the agency’s inability to account for such data — suggests that detailed tracking of staffing levels was not an agency priority.

The Legislative Finance Committee has directed the agency to immediately start collecting such information, which it is doing,  Bland said. Meanwhile the corrections agency has ordered GEO and CCA to provide past staffing data to get a sense of how often the 10 percent rule was violated and how much in penalties the state forgave.

Some of the data has come in, Bland said in an e-mail.

Williams’ ‘unilateral’ decision angers state lawmakers

Some state legislators are angered by the Corrections Department’s inability to say how much the state never collected in potential penalties, especially given the state’s dismal financial situation. Leaner state agencies, cut in previous years, are again imposing cost-saving measures because state revenues aren’t keeping pace with state spending.

Smith added to that refrain last week.

“It’s real bothersome to me that we’re scratching for money and he unilaterally makes this decision,” Smith said of Williams. “That is spending taxpayer money recklessly. He is not looking out for the best interest of New Mexico.”

15Sep/10Off

Corrections gave up $18 million in uncollected penalties

Over the past four years New Mexico has potentially given up more than $18 million in never-assessed penalties despite repeated contractual violations by two private prison operators, a new legislative report says.

By contract New Mexico can levy penalties against GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) when staffing vacancies at the facilities they manage in Hobbs, Grants, Clayton and Santa Rosa stay at 10 percent or more for 30-consecutive days.

That penalty has been triggered regularly, state records show and the new report by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) confirms.

Staffing levels at three of the four privately operated facilities hovered above 10 percent for much of last year, state records show. And at the fourth facility, the vacancy rate was above the 10 percent trigger in six of the 13 months the state records covered.

The LFC report, issued last week, reached the $18 million figure after finding that the two firms had triggered $5 million in penalties last year because their facilities had higher vacancy rates than allowed by contract. The LFC then assumed similar vacancy trends at three of the facilities for the four years previous, and two years previous at the fourth facility, which has only been open for two years.

The state’s corrections secretary, Joe Williams, has defended not collecting the penalties, saying the state’s contracts with the two firms gave him discretion to fine the two companies and he chose not to.

Corrections agency doesn’t track vacancies at private prisons

But the 11-page LFC report found that Williams’ agency never regularly tracked vacancy rates at the four facilities, meaning it did not even know how much the state was forgoing in money by not penalizing the two firms.

“NMCD does not regularly compile vacancy rates, contractor staff pay rates, contractor vacancy savings or review potential penalty amount in its central office, but should do so immediately,” the report said.

The report also noted that the state appeared to have been spending “large sums of contract funding on vacant private prison staff positions.”

Williams, who worked for GEO as a warden prior to becoming the state’s corrections secretary, did not have a response to the legislative report Monday other than a one-sentence statement: “We will be reviewing the report and we will present our response to the LFC.”

While the potential penalties to the two firms amounted to more than $18 million, the savings to the two firms by not fully staffing their facilities was larger, the LFC report noted.

The $18 million in potential penalties equals the salaries the companies did not pay, the report said. Add in benefits that also were never paid by the two firms, and the amount saved is more than $22 million, the LFC report said.

Representatives of both firms could not reached for comment Monday.

Williams has subsequently asked GEO, which manages three of the four facilities, to “perform this analysis and provide other information to ‘defend my position’ of not enforcing contract penalties,” the report noted.

But the LFC report said Williams and his agency should have performed this task all along “to assist in decision making” about whether to penalize the companies or, if not, provide a “rationale for why not to enforce agreed upon contractual provisions.”

Williams’ decision not to collect the penalties from the two firms has put him on a collision course with state lawmakers, some of whom are questioning the action.

Williams acknowledged to The Independent two weeks ago that he hadn’t penalized the two companies because, he said, they were doing an outstanding job managing the four facilities.

The issue of the uncollected penalties comes at a time when state government is scrounging for every dollar because of hard economic times.

The building controversy also threatens to stir up a long-simmering debate over New Mexico’s decision years ago to pay private firms to operate several of its correctional facilities. Critics have long vilified the agreements as a giveaway to private, out-of-state companies while some state lawmakers have quietly wondered if the companies are making out-sized profits.

10Sep/10Off

NM could have repeatedly fined private prisons for low staffing levels

The state appears to have been within its rights last year to repeatedly penalize two private prison operators for letting their vacancy rates hover above a 10 percent trigger in their contracts, state records show.

By contract New Mexico can levy penalties against the two firms – GEO Group and Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) — when staffing vacancies at the facilities they manage in Hobbs, Grants, Clayton and Santa Rosa stay at 10 percent or more for 30-consecutive days.

Staffing levels at three of the four privately operated facilities hovered above 10 percent for much of last year, state records show. As for the fourth facility, the vacancy rate was above the 10 percent trigger in six of the 13 months the state records covered.

Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, who worked for GEO before Gov. Bill Richardson tapped him as corrections secretary, told The Independent last week the state had never penalized GEO or CCA despite vacancy rates repeatedly topping the 10 percent trigger. He had the discretion to decide whether to penalize the firms or not, and he had decided against it, Williams said. The firms were doing a good job of managing the prisons, he added.

Some state lawmakers are wondering why Williams never assessed the penalties. Some believe the never-assessed penalties could amount to millions of dollars.

State records show that vacancies at GEO-operated Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa were above the 10 percent threshold in 11 of  the13 months between July 2009 to July 2010; 10 of the 13 months at the GEO-run Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs; and nine of the 13 months at the CCA-operated New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants.

The vacancy rate at the GEO-run Northeast New Mexico Correctional Facility eclipsed the 10 percent rate in six of the 13 months covered by the time period shown in the records, state records show.

The agency on Friday reiterated Williams’ discretion in deciding whether to penalize the companies or not.

“The contract clauses that deal with vacancy rates gives sole discretion to NMCD so that they may penalize the private prisons,” read an e-mail to The Independent after we had sent questions related to the vacancy rates from July 2009 to July 2010.

“The penalties are not mandatory and are decided by the department,” the e-mail continued. “Secretary Williams will be presenting the reasons to why he has not penalized the vendors to the Legislative Finance Committee in an upcoming hearing.  The department welcomes you to attend the committee hearing.”

The time and date of the hearing is unknown at this time.

7Sep/10Off

Corrections secretary’s previous work for private prison operator highlighted

Think Progress, the blog of the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, has picked up on NMI’s story about New Mexico Corrections Secretary Joe Williams not penalizing two private prison operators despite repeated contract obligations. But Think Progress added a bit of information we forgot to mention: that Williams worked for GEO, one of the two firms that wasn’t penalized, prior to becoming the state’s corrections secretary.

Williams has not been secret about the affiliation. He talks freely on the corrections department’s website about the years he spent with GEO as warden of the Lea County Correctional Facility, which the firm operates, before Gov. Bill Richardson tapped him as corrections secretary.

Here’s an excerpt from Williams biography on the agency’s website.

In 1999, four years before becoming secretary of corrections, Joe accepted one of the more difficult challenges of his career. The Geo Group, Inc. (formerly known as Wackenhut) hired Joe as the warden for the Lea County Correctional Facility, and charged him with turning around the troubled prison in Hobbs, New Mexico. The facility eventually became a flagship prison. Agreeing to serve as its warden proved to be the right move, both professionally and personally. In fact, Joe liked the city of Hobbs so much, he named his beloved basset hound Sir Hobbs.

The question now is whether Williams’ affiliation will be an issue among state lawmakers who are wondering why the corrections secretary decided against penalizing the two private  prison operators — GEO and Corrections Corp. of America — possibly costing the state millions of dollars.

2Sep/10Off

No penalties for understaffed private prisons

The New Mexico Corrections Department has not collected penalties from two private prison operators despite repeated contract violations, costing the state potentially millions of dollars in uncollected fines, state officials have told The Independent.

That has put New Mexico Corrections Secretary Joe Williams on a collision course with state lawmakers, some of whom are questioning Williams’ decision not to collect penalties from GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The companies have repeatedly violated a contractual obligation to keep certain staffing levels at the prisons they operate. The two for-profit businesses operate four correctional facilities for the state in Hobbs, Grants, Clayton and Santa Rosa.

Williams sees no problems due to vacancy rate

Williams acknowledged that the vacancy rates at the prisons GEO and CCA operate often are higher than their contracts allow, but he decided against punishing the firms because the prisons they manage “are outstanding,” he said.

“They are not having escapes; there are no substantial problems.  If there were a problem I would be down there penalizing them,” he said.

GEO and CCA operate four of the state’s prisons, while the state of New Mexico operates the remaining six prison facilities.

It is also unclear where the disagreement is headed, and what action, if any, state lawmakers might take during this upcoming 2011 legislative session.

In addition to the quality of the privately operated prison, Williams said he rejected fining the companies because most of the prisons they operate are in rural areas or small towns, where recruiting and retaining correctional officers and other staff is difficult.

Working as a correctional officer is not for everyone and it’s best to only recruit top-notch people, Williams added.

“I would rather run a prison with 10 quality correctional officers than a bunch of bad apples introducing contraband,” Williams said. “I would rather they be in a penalty phase than they have to meet a contractual obligation.”

“The contract does not say I shall do it. The contract says I can do it,” Williams told The Independent on Wednesday, explaining why he never penalized the two firms for the contract violations.

State lawmakers want to know dollar amounts

So far, there is no agreed-upon amount on how much money New Mexico has given up in uncollected penalties from GEO and CCA.

Asked if his agency had an estimate, Williams said, “We don’t know. That is what we are trying to investigate right now. I’m sure you’ll have an LFC number, a private prison number and our number.”

The situation has irked some state lawmakers who predict the situation over the uncollected penalties is finally coming to a head, especially with New Mexico facing economic difficulties.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, wondered aloud Wednesday “how much money New Mexico taxpayers had lost” due to Williams’ decision.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, meanwhile, said a report from the Legislature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), due out soon would place an estimated dollar amount of the never-assessed penalties.

“I think we need to see the magnitude of the payments that haven’t been made,” Wirth said. “If we are talking about millions of dollars, then absolutely I am concerned about it fiscally and policy-wise. I can assure you that the private operators wouldn’t stand idly by if the state wasn’t meeting its contractual obligations.”

Wirth added that public safety is a concern because staffing shortages mean fewer correctional officers to guard inmates.

Representatives of GEO and CCA could not be reached Wednesday.

Staffing shortages trigger penalties

The issue of the uncollected penalties comes at a time when state government is scrounging for every dollar because of hard economic times.

The building controversy also threatens to stir up a long-simmering debate over New Mexico’s decision years ago to pay private firms to operate several of its correctional facilities. Critics have long vilified the agreements as a giveaway to private, out-of-state companies while some state lawmakers have quietly wondered if the companies are making out-sized profits.

Williams defended GEO and CCA on Wednesday, saying they deserved to make a profit since they’re for-profit businesses. He also questioned the wisdom of  trying “to balance the corrections budget through penalties.” The corrections department has suffered $10 million in budget cuts over the past two years.

Williams acknowledged that over the years GEO and CCA each could have faced repeated penalties as called for in their contracts. The penalties are triggered when staffing vacancies reach 10 percent or more for 30-consecutive days at the prisons GEO and CCA operate in Hobbs, Grants, Clayton and Santa Rosa, according to the rules.

High vacancy rates at the state’s privately operated prisons are nothing new. As far back as 2007, state lawmakers were fuming over an LFC report (page 24) that reported a 37 percent vacancy rate for correctional officers at GEO-operated Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs.

According to agency figures, during July of this year, correctional officer vacancy rates at all four of the GEO and CCA managed facilities were higher than the 10 percent allowed by contract.

Of those, the Lea County facility had the largest vacancy rate, at 22 percent. The other privately operated facilities registered vacancy rates of 17 percent, 14 percent and 13 percent, according to the agency.

A corrections agency spokeswoman said Wednesday it would take days to get monthly vacancy rates for each of the privately operated prisons over the past year.

Private prisons may be paying extra overtime to compensate

Williams also speculated that GEO and CCA were addressing the high vacancy rates at their facilities by giving a lot of overtime to existing employees, as has occurred at the six state-operated prison facilities.

From July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010, correctional officers at the six state-operated prison facilities took home $7.2 million in overtime, according to the agency. It’s unclear how much overtime corrections officers at the four facilities operated by GEO and CCA earned during the same period.

Williams knows his decision to not assess and collect the penalties had put him on the hot seat with state lawmakers. He fully expects to hear from legislators in coming weeks.

Asked if he were scheduled to speak before any legislative committees, Williams replied, “I’m not scheduled to, but I expect to get the phone call.”