Last year, employees of Geo Group, a private prison corporation, contributed more than $2000 to the campaign fund of San Diego’s interim sheriff Bill Gore. Geo operates San Diego’s old downtown jail at 220 C Street, where the company houses more than 750 federal prisoners awaiting trial or transfer to a federal prison.
Documents filed with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, as well as memos obtained under the California Public Records Act, reveal that Geo Group used San Diego lawyer Mike McDade and Geo Group’s Ken Fortier to lobby county officials in an effort to renew their lease of the downtown jail, as well as take charge of the Descanso Detention Facility.
Formerly a unit of Wackenhut Corporation, Geo Group is headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida. The rise of their influence in California has coincided with the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In April 2006, the Institute on Money in State Politics issued a white paper titled “Policy Lock-Down: Prison Interests Court Political Players” that was critical of the use of private prisons. Their existence, the paper contended, was largely due to political decisions regarding crime.
McDade, an attorney with the downtown firm of Wertz, McDade, Wallace, Moot & Brower, is registered as a lobbyist in the city of San Diego but not the county. McDade once worked for former San Diego County supervisor and city mayor Roger Hedgecock. He served as chairman of the San Diego Port Commission in 1997 and has been heavily involved in redevelopment projects downtown.
Last September, McDade and Fortier lobbied April Heinze — director of the county’s Department of General Services, which oversees county leases of buildings — about renewing Geo’s lease on the downtown jail. Neither McDade nor Fortier registered as a lobbyist with the county of San Diego in 2009.
San Diego County defines a lobbyist, or legislative advocate, as “any individual who, on behalf of another individual, firm, corporation, or organization other than himself attempts to influence any County decision by contacting, personally or by telephone, any of the specified County officers or employees.”
The county does provide exemptions to this requirement, including allowing “a member of the State Bar of California who is performing a service which lawfully can be performed only by an attorney licensed to practice law in California.”
McDade’s primary focus as an attorney is government and land-use issues, and he said it was not necessary for him to register as a lobbyist with the county, citing the provision for attorneys. He added that his role in advocating for Geo Group was “sporadic,” and he considered himself only a part-time consultant for Geo.
“The county usually provides an exception for practicing attorneys working on leasing issues. My advice was focused on renewing the downtown jail lease for Geo, and I was not trying to lobby for any new lease,” said McDade.
District attorney spokesman Steve Walker said he was not sure what the exemption included nor what the penalty for failing to file would be. But David Hall of the San Diego County clerk’s office noted that “every attorney was not exempt from registering as a lobbyist due to being an attorney.”
Fortier does not fall under any county exemptions, as he is not a lawyer and does not qualify by any other county exemption standards listed by the county clerk. A former San Diego police officer, Fortier graduated from the San Diego Police Academy in 1962 and served as a patrol officer until being transferred to investigations in 1966. A year later, he was promoted to sergeant.
“He continued to climb through the ranks, earning the positions of lieutenant, captain, inspector, deputy chief and assistant chief. He left San Diego in 1992 and began employment with Riverside on Jan. 18, 1993,” wrote Lisa O’Neill in an August 17, 1997 article for the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper.
Fortier took over as Riverside’s police chief in January 1993. His tenure was credited with lowering the city’s crime rate and modernizing the Riverside Police Department’s organization.
But Fortier left Riverside under the cloud of repeated battles with the police union of Riverside, and in July 2000 he was appointed vice president of Geo-Wackenhut’s western region. The company announced Fortier would be based in Irvine, California, and would manage “eight current facilities and one facility under development, with a total of 6,866 beds.”
In multiple emails last summer to San Diego County staff, Fortier campaigned for Geo Group to gain control of the Descanso Correctional Facility, closed by the sheriff’s department as a cost-saving measure last June, and to renew the lease on the downtown jail. Fortier contacted Carl Harry, Real Estate Services Division project manager for the county, on several occasions. Harry often referred to Fortier as a representative of Geo Group to other county officials.
“Ken represents GEO Group in California and Nevada and is currently working with both the U.S. Marshal and with I.C.E. [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on programs to try and provide more inmate beds in San Diego County,” said Harry in an October 12 exchange with April Heinze and Cal Fire unit chief Howard Windsor.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, usually known as Cal Fire, expressed an interest in the Descanso site. But between June and November, Fortier maintained constant contact with Harry and other members of county staff regarding the Descanso Detention Facility and the downtown jail. April Heinze acknowledged meeting with Fortier and McDade. Geo Group, which operates private prisons throughout the United States and specializes in the detainment of immigration detainees, was seeking to expand its base in San Diego through acquisition of the Descanso facility.
In September, the county decided to turn over the Descanso facility to the San Diego County Probation Department. But on November 26, the Probation Department announced it would not take the facility, citing expenses. Heinze said the Department of General Services contacted Geo Group and Cal Fire to let them know the facility was once more available. As of early this month, no decision had been made, but Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the country, had also expressed an interest.