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Legislators quietly dish no-bid $3 million contract to private prison group

TALLAHASSEE — Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones was visiting Graceville Correctional Facility, the private prison in North Florida run by The Geo Group, when she spotted a paperweight with a picture of handcuffs imprinted on it and the words "Continuum of Care."

She was startled, and a bit angry, to learn that the company had started branding an idea developed by a member of her staff, Abe Uccello, and was using it to promote a new line of business.

"I said, 'You son-of-a-guns,'" Jones recalled of the meeting in late 2015. "They had taken a white paper of Abe's and stolen the entire thing — the content — and claimed to have patented it."

Jones was determined not to share anything again with the private prison vendor "because I don't want them to profit off of what we're trying to do," she told the Times/Herald in an April 2017 interview. But Florida legislative leaders had a different idea.

In March 2016, legislators approved $330,000 for The Geo Group to operate a pilot program to be run at Blackwater Correctional, using the ideas Jones said Uccello had developed for Florida's state-run prison system. This year, lawmakers expanded the program to $3 million, with the money going exclusively to four of The Geo Group's five private prisons in Florida — Bay, Moore Haven, South Bay, and Blackwater — "for the provision of enhanced in-prison and post-release recidivism reduction programs."

"They got it with no competition and no guarantee of performance," said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, who has been a critic of the state's failure to determine if the private prisons are saving tax money as required by law.

Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez said he wasn't aware of Jones' concerns about the company appropriating Uccello's "white paper." He said the company has been using the "Geo Continuum of Care" term since 2010, trademarked the idea in 2011, is financing the program at its Graceville prison with its own funds, and was "transparent" in its request for the $3 million.

"We've been developing these programs for several years" and have been applying the concept across the country, he said. The funding for the programs in Florida "reflects no administrative fee or profit for our company. These programs will be provided at cost, maximizing the value for the State of Florida." He added that "no other provider — in Florida or anywhere else" provides the programming that they offer.

The episode illustrates the competitive forces at play within Florida's prison system, which houses more than 98,000 inmates. Legislators intentionally put the oversight of private prisons under the Department of Management Services to keep it at arms length from the Department of Corrections, which operates the state-run prisons.

But the for-profit prisons get lower-risk inmates, are better funded, have more lobbying clout, funnel millions in cash into legislators' campaigns and, as a result, often get more taxpayer dollars per inmate than prisons run by FDC.

In concept, the "Continuum of Care" program is at the core of the reforms being initiated by Jones in her efforts to shrink Florida's inmate population and close some of the state's older prison facilities. The idea is to make better use of data to steer more inmates into drug and mental health treatment and education and vocational programs, all aimed at keeping offenders from returning to prison.

The programs provide additional training and staff to help offenders develop the skills they need to transition back into their communities and get jobs when they leave prison.

The Geo Group, based in Boca Raton, had at least 15 lobbyists registered in Florida last session and steered more than $1.1 million into the campaign committees of the governor and legislators in the 2016 election cycle.

Richardson noted that while Continuum of Care was a good one, giving $3 million to The Geo Group prisons — and not the two other private prisons or the 150 other correctional facilities run by the state — was not. He also said reporting requirements and performance standards should have been spelled out.

"(House Speaker) Richard Corcoran asked me about this and my response was: 'Why are we in the business of single-source directed care?'" Richardson said. "The House said they weren't going to fund it."

The idea to give the project to Geo had gone through the proper process for a House project that does not have statewide benefit. It was filed as a separate budget request by Reps. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna and Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, but Corcoran and other House leaders initially rejected it.

The project emerged, however, as part of the final package when it was inserted into the budget by Senate leaders. Because the allocation is non-recurring, the prison company will have to return to get the money appropriated again next year, but in the budget request filed with the House of Representatives, Drake indicated that The Geo Group is seeking more than $10 million for the program over the next five years.

Corcoran, who had been so upset by a $1 million no-bid contract for the entertainer Pit Bull that he sued the governor's office, didn't stop the Senate from using the budget to create a sole-source entitlement for The Geo Group.

In 2016, The Geo Group was generous to the campaigns of Senate President Joe Negron and his wife. It steered more than $270,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee, which Negron, R-Stuart, controlled, and nearly $100,000 to the unsuccessful congressional campaign of his wife, Rebecca Negron, according to state and federal campaign finance reports.

This year, The Geo Group has donated more than $480,000 to Florida political committees, including $150,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's Let's Get to Work committee, $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, and $50,000 to the political committee controlled by incoming Senate president Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, state records show.

And, after the budget was signed, The Geo Group wrote Corcoran's political committee a $15,000 check on June 26.

"We will try to work on the process again next year,'' Corcoran said Wednesday, adding that the House succeeded in some of the budget reforms it sought but not all of them. He noted that the budget rules agreed to between the House and the Senate in 2018 will require that contracts like Geo's will have to show what the consequences are for non-performance before they can qualify for funding.

Jones said this week that a private company's taking ideas produced by a state agency goes with the territory.

She said she didn't intend her statement "to be used against GEO," and added: "We're a state agency, so what they get from us is a public record. They took our good idea and they brought it to DMS, and they got it into the budget through DMS. It is a good program because we tried to do it ourselves and will do it ourselves."

When asked for the "white paper" produced by Uccello, FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady said there was "no single document" but "the concept was shared in a discussion with the vendor about the strategic direction of the agency." (A public records request by the Times/Herald submitted in May 2016 for all of Uccello's emails since he was hired at the agency in 2015 has still not been fulfilled.)

Jones said she is working with DMS to provide better oversight of the private prisons contracts, including making sure they result in cost savings. She also wants the private prisons to take a greater share of the medically needy inmates than they do today.

Jones said she remains focused on a transition program for inmates in the state-run prisons and is preparing to launch a new invitation to vendors to assist in the programming for rehabilitation and re-entry.

Unlike Geo, the state system has no new money to do it. Jones said she didn't ask for money for the program this year because she was so focused on the successful effort to get a raise for corrections officers — the first in more than a decade.

But what could Jones have done with $3 million if she had asked for it?

"It depends," Jones replied. "I'm uncertain as to what percentage would go to programing and vocational education as opposed to pure job placement."

Maggie Mickler, spokesperson for the Department of Management Services, said the additional money was needed in the for-profit prisons because there are thousands of inmates who don't receive adequate services today.

"With more than 87 percent of inmates in Florida's correctional institutions scheduled to transition back into their communities upon release, there is a critical need for comprehensive rehabilitative services," she said.

Drake, the legislator who filed the proposal because Graceville Correctional is in his district, said he is supportive of the idea and hopes the agency will expand it again next year.

"If someone can be changed through their incarceration process, it doesn't really matter if it happens in a state facility or a private facility," he said. "The public will benefit."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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