When news broke that Florida’s outgoing state Senate president, Joe Negron, took a job with the massive private prison operator Geo Group, it did not come as a shock to criminal justice reform advocates.
“I hate to be cynical like this, but it’s not a surprise,” said Panagioti Tsolkas, a founder of Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, an advocacy group. “I think it’s pretty disgusting.”
Negron’s support for private prisons — and their support of him — had been written about for years. When the Republican from Stuart became Senate president in 2016, the company gave $270,000 to a political committee he controlled. When his wife ran for Congress, Geo shelled out another $100,000 to her losing cause.
Negron voted for private prison interests and was instrumental in getting the company millions more in taxpayer dollars. In 2012, Negron voted for a bill that would have privatized the entire prison system; it nearly passed.
Three years later, when Florida’s prisons were rocked by reports of inmate deaths and abuses, he spoke out against part of a bill that would have punished prison workers for neglecting or abusing inmates.
Then last year, the Senate quietly inserted an extra $3 million in a no-bid contract to Geo Group. And this year, he included in the budget an extra $4 million for private prison operators, justifying it by saying the private prisons needed the money to keep up with a pay increase for state prison workers.
“We gave a substantial pay increase to employees who work in our prisons,” Negron said. “The problem is, it created a wage disparity with the employees of our private prisons that are partners of us as well.”
Former state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, blasted Negron’s decision to join Geo Group to Politico, which first reported Negron’s hire. Richardson voted against this year’s budget because of the $4 million to private prison operators.
“All taxpayers should be appalled by the apparent conflicts of interest,” he told Politico.
Negron did not respond to a request for comment. But a spokesman for the Boca Raton-based Geo Group justified the hire by touting Negron’s “30 years of experience in business law and complex corporate and commercial litigation.”
“Mr. Negron has worked for several prestigious Florida law firms throughout his career, most recently in the litigation practice at Akerman LLP, and he will bring decades of legal experience to The GEO Group,” the company said.
Negron will oversee Geo’s corporate governance, financial and regulatory disclosures and company lawsuits. He’s replacing John Bulfin, who earned a $514,000 salary last year and is getting a $1.7 million retirement bonus, according to SEC filings.
To Raymer Maguire, the criminal justice reform campaign manager for the ACLU of Florida, it’s not what Negron did to support Geo that stands out.
“What stands out is what he did not do,” Maguire said.
Maguire said criminal justice reforms that would have prevented people from being locked up — and therefore helping private prisons like Geo — did not get the support they needed from Negron. He noted that most of the reforms championed by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg died in the Senate.
He mentioned in particular a bill that would have raised the threshold for a felony theft from $300 to $1,500, which had bipartisan support.
“If Negron had made even one public statement, it could have pushed it over the edge,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of former state Rep. David Richardson.