Rarely a day passes when some news item does not present an opportunity to wonder about the perceptions and judgments of our elected leaders. The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation to limit or even forbid gold mining in Buckingham County, ostensibly for environmental reasons. But the lesson may have more to do with who gets the gold or gelt.
At the same time, the wisdom of the Commonwealth’s legislators guided them to reject legislation limiting corporate political contributions to their campaign coffers. Gold for me, no gold for you, the moral seems. The Old Dominion is one of only five states that permit such contributions without limit. Those funds are also unburdened by any prohibition against personal use by candidates.
The Old Dominion is one of only five states that permit . . . contributions without limit. Those funds are also unburdened by any prohibition against personal use by candidates.
Only QAnon cultists believe that corporate contributions to elected politicians are examples of good citizenship unconnected with or to a vested interest. That interest, in turn, more often than not, is one not in the public’s favor. Legislative requirements to record political contributions have been a wonderful benefit to the electorate and its taxpayers. However, identifying the connection of a particular contribution to the vote of an elected legislator is not a simple matter. Fortunately, there are reporters, journalists, and media to assist in discovering the “grease-to-palm-to-wheels” syndrome that plagues the legislative system and corrupts public trust in it.
The situation becomes even more irritating when the public rationales offered by legislators are considered. Irritation conflates into disbelief when legislative votes infect government responsibility. Every state has elaborate law enforcement and judicial apparatuses to manage their criminal justice concerns. Jails and prisons are an essential component of criminal justice. Incarceration involves actual people for whom a state accepts responsibility to care for, house, and, sometimes, rehabilitate. It’s not a cheap function of governance.
In the wild world of privatization of government services and functions, spawned in large part by President Reagan, state prisons became a target attracting entrepreneurs seeking to profit by promising substantial cost savings to taxpayers and state jurisdictions. To many, the concept appeared to be a “win-win” proposition. Sadly, greasy palms and wheels may have influenced a recent failed vote by a General Assembly Senate committee to terminate an agreement with the state’s only for-profit prison based upon mounting complaints. The result is a “lose-lose” for the electorate.
GEO, a Florida-based, publicly traded company, manages the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County, receiving some $12 million per year from the Commonwealth. Public sources noted that a takeover would add about another $9 million to Virginia’s Department of Corrections (DOC) operations, thereby saving the Commonwealth $3 million per year. Seems like a good deal for the taxpayers. Since 2018, DOC has issued fines totaling $700,000 against GEO for failing to meet contractually agreed-upon staffing at the facility. The Virginia Mercury (January 15) reported:
“The Department of Corrections did not come out of the pandemic looking rosy, from what I heard,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, one of five Democrats who joined the legislative panel’s six GOP members in opposing the termination.
So, Morrissey “heard” some bad things and concluded that, on balance, the benefit to public policy, taxpayers, and the state’s prison population were not persuasive. On January 21, the Virginia Mercury offered additional details on the vote, with another comment from Morrissey:
“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the repeal at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed a new law requiring immediate disclosure of any donation of $1,000 or more from Jan. 1 through the day before the session. Because legislators are banned from raising money during the session, there’s usually a last-minute fundraising blitz before the ban kicks in…. [Some] 29 Virginia lawmakers received contributions from GEO, ranging from $250 to $2,000, with one legislator receiving $10,000…. The spokesperson for the $10K legislator said, “We do not comment on individual contributions.”
In 2020, the General Assembly passed a new law requiring immediate disclosure of any donation of $1,000 or more from Jan. 1 through the day before the session. Because legislators are banned from raising money during the session, there’s usually a last-minute fundraising blitz before the ban kicks in. Thus, Morrissey’s memory lapse was, in fact, protected, as it did not require disclosure.
What Morrissey “heard,” he acknowledged, came from the mouth of a lobbyist for GEO and it was convincing. The Virginia Mercury further reported that 29 Virginia lawmakers received contributions from GEO, ranging from $250 to $2,000, with one legislator receiving $10,000. If 28 received $500 bucks each (a sum of $14,000), all below the reporting requirement, the total would be $24,000 to legislators who may have listened to the lobbyist and ignored the testimony of family members of inmates. The spokesperson for the $10K legislator explained, “We do not comment on individual contributions.” Oh, OK. That’s a good reason.
Nine of eleven Senate members, including five Democrats, of the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee voted to retain GEO. “I want to stress that this bill does not close Lawrenceville,” Adam Ebbin, sponsor of the bill, told the panel. “Lawrenceville is owned by the state, the brick-and-mortar facility. It wouldn’t close it. It would transfer the facility back to the Department of Corrections.” The nine member beneficiaries of GEO’s generosity are:
- Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) – $250
- Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta)- $250
- Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) – $500
- Sen. T. Montgomery “Monty” Mason (D-Williamsburg) – $1,000
- Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) – $1,000
- Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) – $500
- Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) – $500
- Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-Chesapeake) – $1,000
- Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) – $500
Political party affiliation appears to have played no part in the decision. By contrast, in August 2016, President Obama ordered a phase-out of private prison companies from the federal system, following an internal DOJ report criticizing guard staffing levels and the treatment of inmates. The order was rescinded subsequently by Jeff Sessions in the Trump administration. Five days after his inauguration, President Joe Biden renewed the Obama order. It’s not as if the nine Virginia senators know something that DOJ does not.
Online and machine gambling companies, along with marijuana advocates, are pouring thousands upon thousands of dollars in contributions into the Commonwealth to grease palms and wheels for favorable consideration of their interests. Taxpayers don’t stand a chance in this poker game, as their only ante is their vote.
Perhaps the gold mining company will soon appreciate the glitter of its product and pay to play with nuggets offered to the legislators. Why should it behave any differently given the conduct of those who are supposedly responsible for the Commonwealth’s incarcerated population?