Private prison company invests big in Negron family fortunes

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, with Gov. Rick Scott on Jan. 12, 2016, in Tallahassee.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, with Gov. Rick Scott on Jan. 12, 2016, in Tallahassee. AP

In very organized fashion, the nation's second largest private-prison company has steered at least $288,000 to the political enterprises of Rebecca and Joe Negron, the Stuart Republicans hoping to become Florida’s most powerful political couple.

The Geo Group contributed $43,000 to the congressional campaign of Rebecca Negron on two separate days in 2015 and 2016, and gave another $50,000 on June 22 to the super PAC that is supporting her, Conservative Congress Now!, according to federal campaign finance reports.

The Boca Raton-based mega-corporation has also given $27,500 to the political committee of Sen. Joe Negron, Treasure Coast Alliance, and $167,500 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee, which he controls. Negron has been designated the state Senate’s next president for the 2017-18 cycle.

Why the deep investment into the Negron family?

Neither the company nor the candidates would answer.

“As a matter of policy, we're unable to comment on specific contributions; however The GEO Group and its employees participate in the political process as do other organizations including corporations and organized labor,” said Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez.

At the federal level, the company is one of the nation's largest providers of immigrant detention facilities, including one in Broward County. In Florida, the Geo Group and its subsidiaries, which run six Florida state prisons, are poised to benefit from expansions of state contracts relating to inmate mental health treatment, juvenile detention and electronic monitoring.

But for Rebecca Negron, the contributions comprise a significant chunk of the $224,844 her campaign has reported to have raised in the five-way Republican primary to replace Patrick Murphy in the congressional District 18 race.

In the past month, Negron’s super PAC has reported spending more than $346,888 on pro-Rebecca Negron’s campaign ads and mailers through Aug. 8, according to ProPublica.org, but has reported raising only $65,000 to date. The committee doesn't have to report where it got the bulk of its funds until Oct. 15, according to federal election law.

What has been reported shows a clear pattern. On June 25, 2015, two months after Rebecca Negron announced she was running for Congress, the Geo Group political committee and Geo CEO George Zoley gave $15,000 to her campaign.

On March 28, 2016, Rebecca Negron’s campaign received 15 checks ranging from $400 to $2,000 from most of the Geo Group's executive leadership team and some of their spouses, while the corporation gave another $10,000. The coordinated effort included two $2,700 checks from Geo Group's spin-off company Correct Care Solutions. In total, Geo Group executives and their relatives gave $32,950 to her campaign.

For example, John Bulfin, the company’s general counsel, gave Rebecca Negron $2000. So did David J. Donahue and Brian R. Evans, Ann M. Schlarb and David Venturella, all senior vice presidents. Ann Wierdsma, wife of Geo Group senior vice president Thomas Wierdsma, gave $2,000 on March 28 too. CEO Zoley and wife Donna also each wrote a $400 check — bringing their total each to $5,400. Jorge Dominicis, head of Geo Group spin-off Correct Care Solutions, also gave $2,700.

“Rebecca Negron has many contacts and relationships throughout the district and the state, and that is where many of her supporters come from,” said Sarah Bascom, the Negrons’ spokesperson, in a statement. “Rebecca is running her campaign for Congress to represent her constituents.”

The Geo Group is one of two companies that have heavily bundled their executives’ checks to contribute to Rebecca Negron’s campaign. The other is MCNA Dental, which won legislative approval this year for a long-sought plan to get the state’s Medicaid contract for prepaid dental health for children.

Sen. Negron was a sponsor of the bill in the Senate and, weeks after the bill passed, MCNA Dental employees and their spouses wrote 32 checks totaling $86,200 to Rebecca Negron’s campaign in a single day.

In Republican primary debates, candidate Rick Kozell has blasted the contributions as evidence of the “pay to play culture” in Washington and Tallahassee. Rebecca Negron and her consultants have said she is long-time friend of MCNA Dental CEO Jeffrey Feingold.

“Her race has nothing to do with her husband's future political or policy endeavors,”' Bascom said in the statement.

Joe Negron has also been a friend to the Geo Group's goals in Tallahassee.

In 2008, Geo Group worked to secure legislative support for construction of a new privately run prison in North Florida and to win longer contracts for the state for its existing private prisons.

In 2011 and 2012, Negron and other legislative leaders tried twice to privatize 27 prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties. Their efforts were stymied, first by the courts and then by a 21-19 vote in the Senate when a coalition of Republicans joined Democrats to kill the bill.

In 2012, Sen. Negron reported on his financial disclosure forms that Geo Group was a client of his law firm, the West Palm Beach-based Gunster Yoakley and Stewart, one of the state’s largest law firms. Joe Negron, who specializes in litigation and land use law, did not directly represent the company.

Sen. Negron no longer lists Geo Group as a client in the firm, according to this latest disclosure report.

According to data compiled for the Herald/Times by FollowTheMoney.org, private prison industry companies — the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America — spent $5.28 million on Republican races in Florida between 2002 and 2014.

While the emphasis has shifted from building more private prisons, the Geo Group is now focused on expanding its ancillary services — from treatment programs for mentally ill inmates and re-entry facilities for inmates transitioning back to society, to electronic monitoring and community supervision.

Three of Florida’s state mental health treatment centers are run by Correct Care Solutions, the Geo Group spin-off, and the company now runs the Geo Care brand for its juvenile detention, electronic monitoring and reentry programs.

Sen. Negron, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees prison spending for the last two years, has said that he does not support putting more money into Florida’s Department of Corrections. After a series of audits found that the agency was chronically understaffed, Negron indicated that the findings were “nothing surprising” and told the Herald/Times: “I intend to shift my focus for the balance of this year to the courts, public defenders, state attorneys and other agencies in our jurisdiction.”

When he gave his acceptance speech to the Florida Senate this year, Joe Negron announced that one of his goals was to reform juvenile justice laws. Advocates suggest that may mean having the state contract with companies to steer offenders into treatment programs like the ones Geo Group runs.

“There is a delicate balance here,” he said. “We should not and we will not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people but, at the same time, let's not criminalize adolescence.”

Negron would not return phone calls for a request for comment about the Geo Group’s agenda. Bascom said his wife’s statement would be all they would provide.

Paez, spokesman for the Geo Group, said the company's lobbying efforts “are aimed at promoting the benefits and use of public-private partnerships in the provision of correctional and detention management as well as offender rehabilitation and community reentry programs.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas