BOISE – Federal prosecutors on Wednesday declined to file criminal charges of fraud or public corruption in connection with Idaho’s controversial private prison contract with Corrections Corporation of America.
The company had been accused of knowingly understaffing the prison and falsifying records to cover up thousands of hours of vacant guard posts. In a 15-month investigation, the Department of Justice looked into whether the company defrauded the state under its $29 million annual contract and whether state officials tried to delay or prevent the investigation.
Though CCA submitted falsified staffing records for thousands of hours of guard duty at Idaho’s largest prison, investigators found that the records weren’t used to defraud the state, because payments were made based on the number of inmates, not guard staff hours.
“No evidence showed that the false entries were made by the low-level employees with the intent to defraud the state of Idaho of money or property, as is required under the federal criminal fraud statutes,” said U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson.
For more than a decade, CCA operated Idaho’s largest state prison, where inmate-on-inmate violence grew so common that the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise was nicknamed the “Gladiator School.” After the understaffing scandal – and numerous lawsuits over prison violence – the state canceled the contract and took over operation of the prison last July.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter came in for heavy criticism over the issue in his re-election campaign in 2014 because CCA had donated more than $20,000 to his campaigns since 2003. But Otter defended the deal and won re-election with 53.5 percent of the vote.
Otter announced a $1 million civil settlement with CCA in February 2014 over the understaffing and contract-compliance issues, before asking the Idaho State Police to launch a criminal investigation. Asked if that chain of events – settling before investigating – was found to be improper, Olson said, “We looked at whether there were violations. There were a number of other actions or matters that may be of concern to the state agencies or to the voters or whatever.” But, she said, “There is insufficient evidence to prove any criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The FBI stepped in and took over the investigation from the state police in March 2014.
While the Justice Department found no evidence that the state tried to hinder an investigation, miscommunication among state agencies raised questions.
Olson said an Idaho Department of Correction employee falsely testified in federal court that the Idaho State Police was conducting a criminal investigation into the matter in 2013, when it was not. But that wasn’t perjury, she said, because due to miscommunications among state agencies, the employee believed that was the case, and the Idaho State Police never corrected it. Only after months of references to the non-existent ISP investigation, including refusals of public records requests because of an ongoing investigation, did the state finally acknowledge ISP had never launched a criminal investigation before the settlement was reached.
Longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby, a Boise State University professor emeritus, said, “If not criminal negligence, then at least gross mismanagement was on display in the CCA case. This will be a blemish on the Otter record regardless of legal technicalities.”
Weatherby said he hopes a newly named interim legislative committee on state purchasing procedures “can learn lessons from the CCA and IEN (Idaho Education Network) cases,” adding, “The credibility of state government is at stake.”
Federal investigators interviewed about 20 state or CCA employees in their probe, and went through voluminous documents obtained from the ISP, the Idaho Department of Correction, the governor’s office, other state agencies, CCA and the courts. The investigation included FBI agents and specialists in Boise, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C.
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