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AdWatch: Otter hits back at Balukoff, defends handling of prison scandal

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has launched a new TV ad striking back at Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff, and defending Otter’s handling of a prison scandal. It’s the first time that Otter’s campaign has directly mentioned Balukoff in one of its ads, though two outside groups have been running ads attacking Balukoff and trying to tie him to President Barack Obama.

“This may be as good of evidence as we have that this may be a closer race than at least one or two polls have indicated recently,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics. He noted that Otter’s name recognition in the state, as a two-term governor, is close to 100 percent, while Balukoff came into the race virtually unknown outside the Boise area. That would normally prompt a well-known incumbent to avoid giving a little-known challenger any free publicity.

Balukoff, a Boise businessman, is the longtime chairman of the Boise school board; Otter served three terms in Congress and 14 years as lieutenant governor before becoming governor.

Otter’s ad is a direct response to a new commercial Balukoff launched last weekend criticizing Otter’s handling of the state’s troubled contract with private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America; both ads are running statewide, including in the Spokane broadcast TV market. CCA, which until July 1 was being paid $29 million a year to operate the state’s largest prison, was at the center of multiple lawsuits, reports of violence so intense that the prison was dubbed “Gladiator School,” and evidence that CCA had fraudulently overbilled the state for thousands of hours of guard duty that were never worked. In early February, the state dropped all claims against CCA in the staffing dispute in exchange for a $1 million payment.

Weatherby said, “I think the question a lot of viewers might have is: What was dishonest in the Balukoff ad? What are they specifically objecting to? And it’s not clear in this ad.” Balukoff’s ad called the settlement with CCA a “sweetheart deal.” Otter's ad doesn't mention the settlement. You can read my full AdWatch story here, along with links to both ads.

Otter met with CCA officials about understaffing issue in 2013, before recusing himself

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who said in two recent debates against challenger A.J. Balukoff that he “recused” himself from settlement talks with the Corrections Corporation of America over understaffing and falsified staffing records at an Idaho state prison because he’d received campaign contributions from the firm - $20,000 since 2003 – participated in meetings with CCA about the issue as recently as 2013, the Idaho Statesman reports today. Reporter Rocky Barker and Cynthia Sewell report that Otter’s former chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, now a lobbyist for CCA, brought the company’s CEO, Damon Hininger, and other CCA executives to Otter’s office on May 28, 2013 to discuss the company’s state contract and the staffing issue.

Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director, said CCA officials asked for the meeting to apologize for the understaffing and fraudulent billing that later led to a $1 million settlement with the state, and to ask about extending their contract to run Idaho’s largest state prison. “The governor responded that our intention instead was to consider putting the contract out to bid,” Warbis told the Statesman. The newspaper’s full report is online here.

Warbis told the Statesman that Otter recused himself from settlement talks when formal talks started in 2014. CCA had offered to settle the matter with the state for $170,000 prior to the May 2013 meeting, Warbis said. During the meeting, he said, “CCA might have mentioned that offer, but there was no additional discussion of it.”

Last night, Otter’s campaign launched a new TV ad responding to an ad from Balukoff critical of Otter’s handling of the CCA issue; I’ll have a full AdWatch story later today examining Otter’s new ad.

AdWatch: Gloves come off in guv’s race, with ad rapping Otter over prison scandal

The gloves have come off in Idaho’s governor’s race, with Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff launching a hard-hitting new ad faulting GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s handling of a scandal involving the state’s largest prison. You can read my full AdWatch story here at spokesman.com; and watch the commercial here; it’s running statewide, including in the Spokane broadcast TV market.

Idaho took over operation of the Idaho Correctional Center this year from private operator Corrections Corporation of America, after multiple lawsuits, reports of violence so intense that the prison was dubbed “Gladiator School,” and evidence that CCA had fraudulently overbilled the state for thousands of hours of guard duty that never were worked.

Otter, an advocate of privatization, made the announcement reluctantly on Jan. 3; on Feb. 4, he announced a settlement in which the state dropped all claims against CCA in the staffing dispute in exchange for a $1 million payment. At the time, the state had been saying for a year that the Idaho State Police was conducting a criminal investigation, but it turned out no investigation ever had been launched. Otter said then that the ISP had determined none was needed; two weeks later, after meeting with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Otter reversed his stance and called for a criminal investigation by ISP. In March, the FBI stepped in.

“It fails the smell test badly,” Balukoff said, “and we have to wonder what more will come out when the FBI wraps up its ongoing investigation of this debacle.”

The ad includes actual footage of inmate violence at the prison, notes that CCA is a  major campaign contributor to Otter – the firm has donated $20,000 to his campaigns since 2003 – and calls the settlement a “sweetheart deal.” Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics, said the ad – the first time Balukoff’s gone negative – could be a “turning point” in the governor’s race.

Records show ISP cited conflict of interest when it handed over CCA investigation to FBI

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Public records show an Idaho State Police investigation into staffing problems at a private prison was handed over to the FBI after police detectives determined their agency could have a conflict of interest in the case. The apparent conflict of interest wasn't revealed earlier this year, when the state first announced the FBI would be investigating whether fraud or other crimes occurred when Corrections Corporation of America understaffed Idaho's largest prison in violation of its $29-million-a-year contract. The records were among hundreds of documents obtained through public records requests by a campaign staffer for A.J. Balukoff, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter for the governor's seat. Balukoff's campaign spokesman, Mike Lanza, said Balukoff thought it was important for the public to find out more about how the state handled the investigation into understaffing at a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

What the CCA settlement actually said and didn’t say about civil, criminal liability…

After Gov. Butch Otter said in two recent debates against Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff that the $1 million settlement the state signed with Corrections Corp. of America over fraudulent billing and understaffing at the state’s largest prison can be “set aside and then we can go after CCA” if the FBI’s investigation turns up anything, I filed a public records request for the provision in the settlement agreement that says that. Here’s what I received: The 9-page Settlement Agreement and Release, which talks about how all claims, past or future, discovered or undiscovered, are settled by the $1 million payment; and a series of emails here.

In the emails, Otter aide Mark Warbis inquires of state Corrections Department officials about this very question. “David (Hensley, Otter’s chief of staff) has a question about the ‘Release and Discharge’ section at the bottom of Page 1,” Warbis writes. “Does this release and discharge apply only to civil claims, or could this potentially block the pursuit of criminal claims should they emerge?”

Mark Kubinski, lead deputy attorney general for the Idaho Department of Correction, responds, “The release section only applies to civil claims. The signatories are Division of Purchasing, IDOC and the Board, none of whom have any authority to waive any potential criminal charges. I’m comfortable with the language as drafted.”

If I'm interpreting this correctly - and please, all you lawyers out there, chime in if I'm not - that suggests that the state could in fact “go after” CCA criminally if the FBI investigation uncovers evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but the settlement agreement would not be “set aside” and the state could not seek any additional civil penalties or damages.

Emails show Otter staff played key role in $1 million deal with big campaign contributor

In two recent political debates, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said he recused himself from settlement talks with troubled private-prison operator Corrections Corp. of America before the state reached a $1 million settlement with the firm over fraudulent billing and understaffing; Otter said he “had nothing to do with” the settlement. But the Idaho Statesman reports today that emails obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law show Otter’s top staffers were directly involved in the negotiations with CCA, reviewed the settlement agreement before it was approved by the state Board of Correction, and urged lawmakers to support it. The Statesman’s full story, by reporters Rocky Barker and Cynthia Sewell, is online here.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, told the Statesman that Otter meant he personally didn’t participate, and he wasn’t saying his staff didn’t. “Decision-making authority on the settlement itself resided with the (Corrections) Board/Department,” Hanian said. The emails document involvement in the deal by Otter's chief of staff, David Hensley; chief counsel, Tom Perry; and communications director and liaison to corrections Mark Warbis. In one email to state lawmakers, Warbis wrote, “The Governor's office believes the proposal accomplishes our goals of certainty, closure and fairness to taxpayers. It helps us to move forward with the transition to State control of the ICC in an amicable manner.”

During the City Club of Idaho Falls debate on Oct. 9, Otter said, “I personally did not involve myself in the negotiations of the settlement with CCA because I had received money from CCA for my campaign. So I recused myself and let the professionals make that decision. I did not.” The Statesman reports that Otter has received $20,000 in campaign contributions from CCA since 2003.

Inmates claim private prison falsifies staffing levels

BOISE (AP) — Attorneys for inmates at Idaho's largest private prison say Corrections Corporation of America is falsifying staff logs to hide chronic understaffing.

The allegation was raised Friday in an amended lawsuit filed in Boise's U.S. District Court.

Attorneys for the Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA have not yet responded to the amended lawsuit in court, and CCA spokesman Steve Owen said he couldn't discuss details of the litigation.

But Owen said the company's top priority was the safety of its staff, inmates and the communities it serves, and CCA is committed to providing Idaho's taxpayers with the highest quality corrections services.

“We have worked in close partnership with the Idaho Department of Corrections for more than a decade and in a reflection of the strength of that partnership, the state announced in July that it would expand its contract with our company to house up to 800 additional inmates,” Owen wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke and the department's deputy chief of the contract services bureau, Pat Donaldson, both said they've seen no evidence of falsified staff reports. IDOC's contract monitors routinely review the staffing logs and overtime reports supplied by CCA and so far they've found nothing amiss, Donaldson said. A few months ago the department's contract monitors also began randomly checking to see if the security staffers at the Idaho Correctional Center matched those listed on the shift logs, and no discrepancies have been found, Donaldson said.

CCA runs the prison south of Boise under a contract with the state and that contract sets the minimum staffing requirements at the facility. In 2011, CCA agreed to increase the number of correctional officers working at the prison as part of a settlement agreement that ended another federal lawsuit alleging understaffing and rampant violence at the facility.

(Read the rest of this story by clicking to see the full post)

Inmates claim gangs are running Idaho prison

A group of inmates is suing Idaho, saying the contractor running the state's private prison is cutting back on labor costs by letting prison gangs help run the prison.

Among other things, the litigants claim that gang leaders inside the Idaho Correctional Center are consulted by prison staff before new inmates are placed into certain cell blocks.

Prison officials dispute any suggestion of impropriety, saying they take various steps to insure security for all inside the facility.

But recognizing and conferring with gang leaders, the plaintiffs argue, strengthens the gang culture by legitimizing its authority.

Here's a link to an Associated Press article about the lawsuit.

Prison Contractor, Idaho GOP Cozy

Idaho leaders decided fourteen years ago they could save money by hiring out management of the Idaho Correctional Center near Boise to Corrections Corporation of America. For the politicians, this has been a good deal. Privatize prisons and you inevitably weaken unions within the corrections industry. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of CCA’s contracts occur within right-to-work states. So instead of correctional officers funneling their union dues to Democratic candidates, for-profit corrections corporations send their dollars to GOP leaders. CCA provided Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter $10,000 for his 2006 campaign; for his re-election effort, CCA gave Otter $9,000. Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne got $7,500 between 2002 and 2006, and the Idaho Republican Party collected $5,000 in 2005-06/Marty Trillhaase, Lewiston Tribune. More here.

Question: Does the cozy relationship between Idaho GOP leaders and Corrections Corporation of America compromise the safety of inmates in the state’s privately run prison?

FBI probing assault at Idaho prison

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The surveillance video from the overhead cameras shows Hanni Elabed being beaten by a fellow inmate in an Idaho prison, managing to bang on a prison guard station window, pleading for help. Behind the glass, correctional officers look on, but no one intervenes when Elabed is knocked unconscious.

No one steps into the cellblock when the attacker sits down to rest, and no one stops him when he resumes the beating.

Videos of the attack obtained by The Associated Press show officers watching the beating for several minutes. The footage is a key piece of evidence for critics who claim the privately run Idaho Correctional Center uses inmate-on-inmate violence to force prisoners to snitch on their cellmates or risk being moved to extremely violent units.

On Tuesday, hours after the AP published the video, the top federal prosecutor in Idaho told the AP that the FBI has been investigating whether guards violated the civil rights of inmates at the prison, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America.

The investigation concerns the prison’s rate of violence and covers multiple assaults between inmates, including the attack on Elabed, U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said. (Elabed is pictured above in July)

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company is cooperating with federal agents, as it has with other law enforcement overseeing the prisons.

Lawsuits from inmates contend the company denies prisoners medical treatment as a way of covering up the assaults. They have dubbed the Idaho lockup “gladiator school” because it is so violent.

The AP initially sought a copy of the videos shot on Jan. 18 from state court, but Idaho 4th District Judge Patrick Owen denied that request. The AP had already obtained a copy and decided to publish the videos after a person familiar with the case verified their authenticity.

The videos show at least three guards watching as Elabed was stomped on a dozen times. At no time during the recorded sequence did anyone try to pull away James Haver, a short, slight man.

About two minutes after Haver stopped the beating of his own accord, the metal cellblock door was unlocked. Haver was handcuffed and Elabed was examined for signs of life. He bled inside his skull and would spend three days in a coma.

CCA, the nation’s largest private prison company, said it was “highly disappointed and deeply concerned” over AP’s decision to release the videos.

“Public release of the video poses an unnecessary security risk to our staff, the inmates entrusted to our care, and ultimately to the public,” the prison company said in a statement.

Read the rest of the story by AP writer Rebecca Boone by clicking the link below.