Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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This Is How Private Prison Companies Make Millions Even When Crime Rates Fall

| Thu Sep. 19, 2013 1:43 PM EDT

We are living in boom times for the private prison industry. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest owner of private prisons, has seen its revenue climb by more than 500 percent in the last two decades. And CCA wants to get much, much bigger: Last year, the company made an offer to 48 governors to buy and operate their state-funded prisons. But what made CCA's pitch to those governors so audacious and shocking was that it included a so-called occupancy requirement, a clause demanding the state keep those newly privatized prisons at least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of whether crime was rising or falling.

Occupancy requirements, as it turns out, are common practice within the private prison industry. A new report by In the Public Interest, an anti-privatization group, reviewed 62 contracts for private prisons operating around the country at the local and state level. In the Public Interest found that 41 of those contracts included occupancy requirements mandating that local or state government keep those facilities between 80 and 100 percent full. In other words, whether crime is rising or falling, the state must keep those beds full. (The report was funded by grants from the Open Society Institute and Public Welfare, according to a spokesman.)

All the big private prison companies—CCA, GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation—try to include occupancy requirements in their contracts, according to the report. States with the highest occupancy requirements include Arizona (three prison contracts with 100 percent occupancy guarantees), Oklahoma (three contracts with 98 percent occupancy guarantees), and Virginia (one contract with a 95 percent occupancy guarantee). At the same time, private prison companies have supported and helped write "three-strike" and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that drive up prison populations. Their livelihoods depend on towns, cities, and states sending more people to prison and keeping them there.

You might be wondering: What happens when crime drops and prison populations dwindle in states that agreed to keep their private prisons 80 percent or 90 percent full? Consider Colorado. The state's crime rate has sunk by a third in the past decade, and since 2009, five state-run prisons have shuttered because they weren't needed. Many more prison beds remain empty in other state facilities. Yet the state chose not to fill those beds because Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and CCA cut a deal to instead send 3,330 prisoners to CCA's three Colorado prisons. Colorado taxpayers foot the bill for leaving those state-run prisons underused. In March, Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, estimated that the state wasted at least $2 million in taxpayer money using CCA's prisons instead of its own.

That's just one example of how private prison companies keep the dollars rolling in, whether crime is rising or waning. Not surprisingly, In the Public Interest's report calls on local and state governments to refuse to include occupancy requirements and even ban such requirements with new legislation. "With governmental priorities pulling public funds in so many different directions, it makes no financial sense for taxpayers to fund empty prison beds," the report says.

Read the full report below:

 

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Report: Pentagon Audit Says the Navy Gave Contractors Too Much Access to Its Facilities

| Tue Sep. 17, 2013 4:26 PM EDT

The Department of Defense's inspector general released a new report on Tuesday afternoon showing that, in an effort to cut costs, the Navy bungled its efforts to control how government contractors gained access to naval facilities. The report lands a day after 34-year-old Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at a Navy Yard facility in southeast Washington, DC. It was the fifth mass shooting of 2013. Alexis worked as part of a government subcontract under Hewlett-Packard, and he entered the Navy Yard with a valid badge.

The report found that 52 convicted felons had received "routine, unauthorized installation access, placing military personnel, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk." The reason, the inspector general found, was because the Navy "attempted to reduce access control costs." You can read the full report below:

 

On Syria Debate, Congress Shifts From Frenzied to Frozen

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 3:02 PM EDT
President Obama meets with congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House on September 3, 2013.

On Tuesday night, President Obama took his case for bombing Syria to the American public, but he also kept open the possibility that US attacks could be averted if Bashar al-Assad's regime agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Obama asked lawmakers to delay a vote on whether to approve attacks on Syria, and just like that, the Syria debate in Congress went from frenzied to frozen. It's crickets on Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) canceled the vote on Syria he was expected to schedule for this week. The Senate canceled an afternoon briefing on Syria. Lawmakers instead gathered on the US Capitol steps for a remembrance of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and trotted out onto House and Senate floors to opine on the budget, Obamacare, 9/11, and the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013. On Syria, they mostly waited. "Everyone's just sitting around," says a Senate Democratic aide.

That's quite a change from the past week or so. To build support for bombing Syria, the White House threw practically every staffer and surrogate into the lobbying effort, briefing congressional Democrats and Republicans and trying mightily to convince skeptical lawmakers why they should vote yes on an authorization to use military force in Syria. The mighty American Israel Public Affairs Committee dispatched 300 members to the Hill to twist arms and convince lawmakers to support the attacks. By Monday, the president and members of the administration had met with some 85 senators and more than 165 House members, according to PBS NewsHour. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort—and it wasn't working.

Obama's Tuesday night speech to the American public was, among other things, a timeout call. By looks of Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Congress is more than happy to take a breather and put off, for now, what was sure to be a divisive vote for both parties.

The Conservative Dark Money Daisy Chain

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 12:44 PM EDT

We've known for more than a year that major players in conservative politics use a network of nonprofit groups to move tens of millions of dollars around the country while keeping the identities of their donors a secret. This has been called a "shadow money trail" and a "daisy chain" of dark money, and it lets donors pour money into politics and issue campaigns anonymously. Now, the folks at OpenSecrets.org are out with a report shedding new light on the murky constellation of groups used to circulate that money.

OpenSecrets' report focuses on two 501(c)(4) nonprofits: TC4 Trust and the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Both of these groups have ties to the Koch brothers and their network of wealthy conservative and libertarian donors. It's not clear where the funding for TC4 Trust or the Center to Protect Patient Rights actually comes from—as in, who the original donors are—but OpenSecrets has discovered that these two outfits are engaged in "a high-stakes game of hide-the-ball, disguising transfers of millions of dollars from one to the other behind a veil of Delaware limited liability corporations." For years, both organizations have used intermediary groups that are also shrouded in secrecy to shuffle their money.

This flowchart helps visualize just how TC4 and the Center to Protect Patient Rights use a handful of middlemen to move their money around:

OpenSecrets.org

The Center to Protect Patient Rights came onto the scene last year, when the group was revealed to be a conduit for dark money flowing into a number of well-known conservative groups. In 2010, CPPR funneled $44 million into outfits such as Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, and 60-Plus Association, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to the AARP.

CPPR, run by a political operative named Sean Noble who has worked for the Kochs, came to be seen as part of a daisy chain of right-leaning nonprofits shuffling secret money around the country. There is very little information on where exactly CPPR's money comes from because the group's donors are not disclosed. One of few chances to get a peek at the donors bankrolling this dark money universe could come from California, were the state's attorney general and election watchdog are jointly investigating an $11 million donation made in 2012 that passed through CPPR. That investigation has gone deep enough that, as I reported in April, conservative operatives are on edge about what it could reveal. "A lot of folks are going to have their dirty laundry hung out," a conservative lobbyist told me at the time, "and it's not going to be pretty."

Mitch McConnell: Want My Syria Position? Wait Till Next Week

| Fri Sep. 6, 2013 3:58 PM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

At an appearance Friday at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke about the Syrian civil war and the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on the Syrian people.

McConnell did not take a position on whether the US military should bomb Syria in response to the chemical weapons attacks. "This is a tough call. I think there are good arguments on both sides," he said. The Kentucky senator told the audience he would announce his position on whether to bomb Syria next week.

McConnell did, however, delve a bit deeper into his views on the chemical weapons attack. "Use of chemical weapons against anybody, particularly against your own people, has been viewed for decades as simply unacceptable," he said. That view is awfully close to President Obama's position that the use of chemical weapons crosses a "red line" widely acknowledged by the international community.

In 2012, Obama said that "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." Earlier this week, Obama hedged that by saying, "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war."

What McConnell said at the Northern Kentucky Chamber is a boiled-down version of that statement. It remains a mystery whether McConnell will back strikes in Syria—and risk further inflaming his already hostile conservative base—or cast his lot with fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul and oppose the strikes. We'll have to wait until next week to find out.

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