The Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a nonprofit group filed a lawsuit Jan. 10 in federal district court in Washington, D.C. claiming the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has not acted on the group’s complaint, filed more than a year ago, that a private prison company made illegal six-figure campaign donations to a “super PAC” (political action committee) supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The lawsuit asks the court to order declare the contributions illegal and order the FEC to act on the complaint.

The Obama administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ) reversed a policy Aug. 18, 2016 that had been in effect for two decades, by directing a phase out of its use of privately-owned prisons; a week earlier, DOJ’s inspector general had issued a study claiming private prisons fall short of federally-run prisons in both safety and effectiveness.

That news, and the perceived electoral prospects for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose platform supported ending federal contracts with private prisons, slammed the three corporations running private prisons — the two publicly-traded firms saw sharp declines in their stock prices.

One of those firms, the GEO Group, Inc., based in Boca Raton, Florida, through a wholly-owned subsidiary, GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., the day after the DOJ announcement sent a $100,000 donation to Rebuilding America Now, which called itself “the largest Super PAC supporting Donald Trump” in the 2016 presidential election. The same company donated another $125,000 to the super PAC on Nov. 1, a week before the presidential election.

That was also the day CLC filed a complaint with the FEC, charging the $225,000 in donations to the super PAC violated a 75-year-old law barring political donations in federal elections by entities holding or negotiating for federal contracts.

GEO maintains that it fully complied with federal election law, noting the subsidiary which made the donations did not hold any contracts with the federal government. It also pointed to a 2012 FEC ruling which cleared similar contributions by a Chevron holding company which itself held no federal contracts., even though another Chevron subsidiary was a federal contractor.

CLC argues there’s no essential difference between the GEO Group and its subsidiary, which share the same address and staff. In its lawsuit, the nonprofit also points to a company filing with the National Labor Relations Board connected with an organizing drive at a company-operated prison in Folkston, Georgia which has a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in which the subsidiary, not the parent company, was listed as the employer in the case. GEO says that was an error which it has corrected.

The lawsuit alleges the FEC isn’t complying with a federal election law provision directing the FEC to respond within 120 days to complaints it receives. CLC claims the agency is ignoring both that procedural requirement and the ban on federal contractors’ political contributions.

But some observers think the case raises additional undecided issues. These include whether the ban applies only to the entity holding a contract, or also to related entities. Similarly, the status of super PACs in federal election law is unsettled, as is the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which on First Amendment grounds eased some restrictions on corporate political activity.

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com. 

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).