GEO Group, a private prison firm that’s been the subject of scrutiny for its involvement in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, has chipped in a hefty contribution to the race for Florida attorney general.
And political players are taking notice.
Democratic nominee Sean Shaw held a press conference Wednesday to rail against his opponent, former state prosecutor and Republican nominee Ashley Moody, for accepting more than $25,000 in donations from the Boca Raton-based company.
“Ashley Moody’s decision to allow a private prison company to bankroll her campaign isn’t just wrong, it’s disqualifying,” Shaw said. “A prison firm funding the state’s top law-enforcement officer’s campaign should raise all kinds of questions about what direction she wants to take the state in.”
Moody’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
According to a July 10 WUSF report, GEO made a $3,000 contribution to Moody’s personal campaign account in October 2017, before the substantial Oct. 3 donation to the Friends of Ashley Moody political action committee. Another news outlet, the Miami New Times, reported on Oct. 15 that GEO, one of the two largest prison contractors in the country, has repeatedly been beset by controversy. Besides long-standing concerns about GEO employees’ treatment of inmates, the company has been criticized in recent months for operating detention centers used by ICE. Reports of torture, human-rights abuses and unpaid labor at GEO facilities have cropped up around the country.
According to Florida International University political science professor Kathryn A. DePalo, these sorts of campaign donations are “the reason why we have such strict disclosure” about financial contributions.
“When there are political donations made to legislators, there’s a whole host of issues they could be voting on,” DePalo told the Daily Business Review. “I think with this particular donation, it is a little more suspect because the attorney general is a little more limited in areas of focus.”
Donors to judicial candidates are most commonly lawyers and other organizations who’ll theoretically have business before the prospective official, DePalo noted.
“I’m not surprised at this donation, but it is one of those things where when you’re talking about the judicial system… you would imagine there would be more objectivity there,” she added.
On Thursday a GEO Group representative characterized Shaw’s statements as “the height of hypocrisy” in a statement to the DBR.
“We manage a family residential center in Karnes City, Texas, which allows the federal government to care for parents together with their children and which was established in 2014 by the Obama-Biden Administration. It’s incredibly hypocritical for Sean Shaw to attack GEO over this Obama-Biden policy on the same day he accepted former Vice President Biden’s endorsement,” the statement said. “We call on Sean Shaw to stop spreading misinformation, and we would encourage him to visit one of our Florida facilities to learn about how GEO is a leader in working to reduce recidivism and talk to participants in our rehabilitation programs who will personally speak to their preference of being in a GEO facility.”
Shaw described GEO’s assertion as “laughable” when reached for comment by the DBR.
“They’re suggesting there’s some equivalency between me accepting Biden’s endorsement and GEO money,” he said. “I don’t know what’s hypocritical about me talking about those news reports.”