NM Democrats to give up prison firms’ donations

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Amid the national debate over immigration policy, several prominent New Mexico Democrats – including the attorney general and two members of the state’s congressional delegation – say they will make charitable donations in the amounts they received as campaign contributions from two private prison companies.

And other elected officials said they’re considering returning such contributions.

The companies are Florida-based GEO Group Inc., and Tennessee-based CoreCivic, which operate immigrant detention centers and private correctional facilities across the country. In New Mexico, GEO Group operates several private prisons and related facilities, and CoreCivic runs a private prison and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Cibola County.

The companies have contributed thousands of dollars to Democratic and Republican political campaigns here in recent years, as recently reported by New Mexico In Depth.

Attorney General Hector Balderas

GEO Group contributed $5,500 in April to the re-election campaign of Attorney General Hector Balderas, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. Balderas, a Democrat, announced last week that he is part of a coalition of 21 attorneys general suing President Donald Trump for his administration’s child separation policy, among other immigration-related issues.

An Attorney General’s Office spokesman said Monday that “contributions to a political campaign play no impact on (Balderas’) official decisions” and that the attorney general would donate the $5,500 to several New Mexico nonprofits focused on children and families. Asked why the attorney general was making the donation at this time, the spokesman referenced the lawsuit.

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Meanwhile, the re-election campaign for U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told the Journal that it, too, had made a charitable donation in the amount of the $6,500 it has received from CoreCivic since 2010.

Brad Elkins, who manages Heinrich’s re-election campaign, said in an email that the senator “does not support the private prison industry” and that the donation would be given to the New Mexico nonprofit PB&J Family Services.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján

And a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a fellow Democrat, said Luján donated the $7,000 he received from GEO Group to New Mexico nonprofit organizations that help immigrant children and their families, as well as victims of violence.

Share prices of both GEO Group and CoreCivic have risen in response to Trump administration immigration policies.

In respective statements, spokesmen for the two companies said they do not operate facilities for unaccompanied minors, and that their organizations do not advocate for or against immigration enforcement or detention policies.

“While we applaud charitable giving and make it a priority for our company, this decision (to donate to other charities) appears to be rooted in politics,” a CoreCivic spokesman said in an email.

Some state lawmakers – both Republicans and Democrats – have also received hefty campaign contributions from the private prison companies in recent years.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said Monday that she was considering returning a $2,000 donation from GEO Group that she received in December 2017. She also received a $300 contribution from the company in 2010, according to campaign filings.

“I’ve been kicking that around,” Lundstrom told the Journal. “I’ll be talking to my (campaign) treasurer about it.”

Lundstrom was appointed as chairwoman of the influential House Appropriations and Finance Committee at the start of the 2017 legislative session, and she acknowledged some recent campaign contributions could be seen as an attempt to gain favor.

It was unclear Monday whether Republican politicians in New Mexico had made or were considering making similar gifts. A spokesman for the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents the border region of New Mexico, said Pearce had not donated the $1,000 he received from CoreCivic last year. He also said Pearce does not support the policy of separating families at the border.

Since 2010, the largest campaign contributions from private prison companies have been made by GEO Group to Gov. Susana Martinez and political committees that support her.

The company gave more than $80,000 – in separate contributions in 2014 and 2016 – to Advance New Mexico, an independent expenditure committee run by Jay McCleskey, the governor’s political adviser. The political action committee, also known as a super PAC, spent more than $3.1 million during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles to help Republican legislative candidates.

GEO Group also gave Martinez a direct $25,000 donation in 2010, the year she was first elected governor. The state’s current campaign contribution limits for candidates – of $5,500 for the primary and general election – took effect after the 2010 election cycle.

Neither McCleskey nor a spokesman for the two-term Republican governor immediately responded Monday to a request for comment on the issue.

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