By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Gov. Rick Scott got some national media attention – again—this weekend following news that he held a campaign event in the home of the CEO of a controversial private prison company that operates a detention facility in Florida.
Florida Governor Rick Scott really knows how to pick a fundraiser. Last month, he was scheduled to attend a $10,000-a-plate event at the home of a real estate developer who’d done prison time on tax charges. Hours after Mother Jones disclosed the event, Scott canceled it. Now, on July 21, Scott will headline a $10,000 per person fundraiser at the Boca Raton home of another deep pocketed donor who is the CEO of a private prison company that’s profiting handsomely over the immigration crisis at the Mexican border.
George Zoley is one of the founders of the GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the country. Among the 98 facilities the company owns or manages are several detention centers for undocumented immigrants run through contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. One of those is a facility in Broward County, Florida, that’s been the site of at least one hunger strike and protests over allegedly poor treatment of the 700 immigrants held there, most of whom have no serious criminal histories.
In 2012, members of Congress demanded that ICE investigate the Broward facility after reports the center was holding people who should have been released and that it was not providing adequate medical care to the detainees. An investigation last year by Americans for Immigrant Justice also found credible reports of detainees suffering food poisoning from being served rotten food. The group noted instances of sexual assault among detainees and inadequate mental health care that may have contributed to at least three suicide attempts. Detainees also reported being forced to work for $1 a day and to pay $3 a minute for phone calls.
The Geo Group, which rakes in $1.5 billion in annual revenue, earns $20 million annually just from the Florida center.
Just a couple days after Scott was ridiculed all over national media for his question-dodging, he was taken to task on HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver for the event.
All the attention incited a protest at the site of the fundraiser.
As news of the fundraiser broke, Florida for All, a grassroots organization that fights for protecting the rights and interests of Florida’s middle class and working families, put out a call for protesters to come out and show their displeasure.
The gathering wasn’t big, but Florida for All spokesperson Ana Tinsly tells New Times that Scott has seemed to master the art of dodging protests such as these.
“There were a little over 20 people,” Tinsly says. “But considering a lot of these events are really last minute, that’s a good turnout. Governor Scott has done a good job of insulating himself from these protests, and his administration is very careful to release info on these types of events at the very last minute.”
Those who did turn out, however, showed a passion for their message.
“There’s a motivated group of people,” Tinsly says, “people who demand rights of immigrants and the undocumented detainees held in these prisons. I think that Zoley is the CEO of a prison that is seemingly getting away with egregious practices speaks to people’s sense of right and wrong. I think people are very upset to find that Rick Scott has such a cordial relationship with this CEO.”
GEO Group has also been giving a lot of money to other state lawmakers in Florida. For years, the state has been weighing prison privatization and the company has flooded the campaign coffers of members of the Florida Legislature in an effort to make sure efforts pass.
According to ThinkProgress, “an examination of campaign finance records shows that GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, was one of the 15 largest contributors to the Florida Republican Party in 2010, and gave over $11,000 in contributions directly to the campaigns of 14 of the 20 members of the Budget Committee that approved the bill, by a vote of 14-4. Since 2006, GEO Group has spent a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions in Florida alone.”