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Prison Firm Donates to Governor

November 26, 2003|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who rejects donations from the state prison guards union, accepted $53,000 last week from a corporation that operates private prisons and has clashed with the union over private lockups.

The money came as the state prepared to close a 224-bed Wackenhut Corrections Corp. facility Dec. 31 in the Central Valley town of McFarland.

Wackenhut made the donation after its president read a news report in which Schwarzenegger voiced support for prison privatization, the executive said.

The firm also gave $5,000 to Schwarzenegger's recall campaign.

The $58,000 amounts to the largest contribution the company has given to any California politician.

In a telephone interview, Wayne H. Calabrese, president of Wackenhut, based in Boca Raton, Fla., said Schwarzenegger did not solicit the contribution and might know nothing about the company and its dealings in California.

"We have a large investment in California, in infrastructure and our employees," Calabrese said.

"We want to do everything we can to preserve our business base in California."

Last year, in a move fought by Wackenhut and other prison companies, former Gov. Gray Davis canceled state contracts with three private prisons -- to save money, he said. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had pushed for the closure. The union has long opposed private prisons and was one of Davis' biggest benefactors, giving him $1.4 million during his first term.

"We were frustrated with the previous administration," Calabrese said. "We thought we should support a candidate and governor who has articulated support for public-private partnerships."

The company gave to Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial campaign and to a separate fund he established to support the recall of Davis, a top company executive said.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto, asked whether the donations would affect the administration's decision on the Wackenhut contract, said, "Of course not."

The contract won't "rise to the level of the governor's consideration," he said.

Corporations operate nine private facilities in California that house 3,000 minimum-security inmates, although three of the lockups are slated to close next month. Wackenhut has four, including the one in McFarland.

Payments from the facility represent less than 1% of Wackenhut's revenue. Whether or not the state continues to send inmates to McFarland, the company is obligated to make $5 million in lease payments, according to a recent Wackenhut filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The company holds out hope that it can reverse the decision to close the facility.

The firm's Florida lobbyist, David L. Ericks, is close to Schwarzenegger's finance director, Donna Arduin, who was Florida's budget director before coming to Sacramento. Ericks was in Sacramento last week when the governor was sworn in. He could not be reached Tuesday for comment

Schwarzenegger spokesman H.D. Palmer said California's Department of Finance would have no role in deciding whether to extend Wackenhut's contract. "We don't do line approval," he said. "That is handled by agencies."

Palmer said Ericks' relationship with Arduin would have "zero" impact on such a decision. "He is a registered lobbyist in the state of Florida," Palmer said. "He is not registered in California."

The governor has raised more than $1.2 million since the Oct. 7 recall election and plans fund-raisers starting next week to repay $4.5 million in bank loans he took out to help finance his campaign.

Schwarzenegger has a policy of refusing campaign donations from public employee unions, including that of the guards. He has said he does not want to take donations from such unions because he must negotiate pay and other labor issues with them.

"It sounds to me that Wackenhut is doing exactly what they accuse us of doing -- getting involved in 'pay to play,' " said Lance Corcoran, executive vice president of the guards union.

"Wackenhut is a savvy corporate entity," he added. "They have great influence in other states. I'm sure they are bringing that playbook to California."

Corcoran said he doubted that Schwarzenegger would be influenced by the donations: "Ultimately, he will do the right thing for public safety."

Corcoran said the union opposed private prisons because "corrections is a public function and should not be sold to the lowest bidder."

Advocates of private prisons have said that the union opposes their efforts because it fears that they could reduce the need for state-employed prison officers.

Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.

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