February 28, 2014 in Idaho

Idaho lawmakers seek FBI inquiry into prison

Rebecca Boone Associated Press
 
Charlie Litchfield photo

This June 15, 2010, file photo shows the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Idaho’s top Democratic lawmakers have asked the FBI to investigate private prison company Corrections Corporation of America for possible criminal wrongdoing at the state’s largest prison.

The letter sent to Boise FBI Agent Ernie Weyand on Thursday says the lawmakers are concerned that the Idaho State Police lacks both the manpower and expertise needed to properly investigate the Nashville, Tenn.-based company’s activities in Idaho.

The lawmakers also say the investigation may cross state lines, putting it under federal jurisdiction.

CCA acknowledged last year that it understaffed the Idaho Correctional Center by thousands of hours in violation of the state contract and that employees falsified state reports to cover up the vacancies. The Idaho Department of Correction is currently in the process of taking over the prison south of Boise.

“We request that the FBI investigate whether CCA, its employees, or its officers and leadership engaged in criminal conduct and defrauded the state of Idaho and our citizens by falsifying time sheets over many years to hide chronic understaffing. We also ask that you use your expertise to define the nature and scope of any investigation since the full nature of the potential criminal activities is, at present, unknown,” the group wrote in the letter, signed by Sens. Michelle Stennett, Elliot Werk and Cherie Buckner-Webb, and Reps. John Rusche, Grant Burgoyne and Donna Pence.

Werk, the Senate assistant minority leader, said in a phone call that the lawmakers have great respect for the Idaho State Police, but ISP Col. Ralph Powell has told lawmakers that his agency is underfunded and doesn’t have enough officers to efficiently carry out core duties. Werk said that could make it exceedingly difficult for the state police to fully investigate CCA.

“People deserve to know whether our tax dollars were misspent or mismanaged. We’ve had many issues with CCA over the years, and now we’re embarking on a very large and very complex investigation involving areas all across the United States,” Werk said. “Senate leadership believed that because of the manpower and expertise required, we needed the FBI.”

CCA has operated Idaho’s largest prison for more than a decade. The Idaho Department of Correction asked the Idaho State Police to launch a criminal investigation into CCA last year after an Associated Press investigation showed that CCA’s staffing reports listed some guards as working 48 hours straight in order to meet minimum staffing requirements. CCA then acknowledged that its employees falsified the documents to hide thousands of hours of understaffing at the prison in violation of the $29 million state contract.

For the past 12 months, state officials have said that the investigation was underway. But after the AP filed a public records request for the Idaho State Police investigation documents late last month, the law enforcement agency revealed no investigation ever occurred. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a self-described champion of prison privatization, first supported the police decision not to investigate. But on Feb. 18, after the state had signed an agreement releasing CCA from civil liability in exchange for a $1 million payment, Otter announced that he was directing the state police to investigate after all.

“My instruction to Col. Powell was to conduct a thorough investigation,” Otter said in a statement. “And if he or one of his investigators wants to visit with the FBI and wants to invite the FBI in, that is fine. But I am leaving it up to the investigators and law enforcement now, and I don’t think anybody should put sideboards on it.”

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in a statement that his company, like Idaho lawmakers and the public, believed that a criminal investigation had already been conducted. Owen said CCA’s own investigation concluded that it wasn’t a criminal matter and that he remains confident in those findings.

“We’ll of course continue to cooperate with investigators, as we have all along,” Owen said.

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