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Fired TYC monitors had worked for facility's operator: Group fired for failing to report conditions at W. Texas facility was employed earlier by GEO Group
[October 12, 2007]

Fired TYC monitors had worked for facility's operator: Group fired for failing to report conditions at W. Texas facility was employed earlier by GEO Group

(Dallas Morning News, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 12--Three monitors fired by the Texas Youth Commission last week for failing to report filthy and dangerous conditions at a privately run juvenile prison in West Texas had previously worked for the company they oversaw.

Two of the quality assurance monitors were hired directly from caseworker positions with The GEO Group Inc. at the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center, according to their job applications.

The monitoring unit's supervisor also briefly worked for GEO at the youth prison near Bronte four years before being hired by TYC, records show. A clerk who was fired had previous GEO employment as well.

TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said agency executives were unaware of the terminated workers' ties to GEO before The Dallas Morning News filed an open-records request this week.

Officials said last week that they were concerned about entanglements between TYC employees and the company they monitored. TYC's inspector general has launched a criminal investigation of operations at the Coke County prison, including the possibility of financial transactions between GEO and TYC employees.

GEO's relationship with the fired TYC monitors is a likely topic at a hearing today of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in Austin. It is intended to examine GEO's operation of youth and adult prisons in Texas.

State Sen. John Whitmire, the panel's chairman, was angered to learn from a reporter Thursday that TYC monitors had previously been employed by GEO.

"I think it's outrageous," the Houston Democrat said. "It just confirms what many of us suspected -- that there was too close a relationship between the TYC employees and GEO employees."

He said the committee also would seek answers from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and county jail and juvenile probation officials about their own monitoring of private corrections companies.

"Anyone that confines individuals in the state of Texas needs to make certain they know who their monitors are -- and that they go behind their monitors and literally monitor their monitors," Mr. Whitmire said.

Mr. Hurley said the prior employment with GEO raised questions about whether the monitors had been objective in their evaluations of the facility.

"How do you monitor the monitors?" he said. "We need a very good answer to that."

For years, quality assurance reports on the Coke County prison had been overwhelmingly positive. Twice, TYC named it contract facility of the year.

"You have to worry about conflicts of interest," Mr. Hurley said Thursday. "I'm not saying there is a conflict of interest. But there is a perception."

TYC Executive Director Dimitria Pope fired four monitors at the Coke County prison and a clerk last week after she and others toured the facility. It was in such deplorable condition, Ms. Pope said, that she ordered the removal of all 197 inmates.

She also fired another employee at the Coke County facility who had not worked for GEO, and two contract care supervisors at TYC's district office in Fort Worth. The head of contract care at TYC's headquarters in Austin resigned.Ms. Pope canceled TYC's $8 million contract with Florida-based GEO, which had operated the Coke County facility since it opened in 1994. GEO initially tried to reinstate the contract but, after criticism, said it accepted the decision.

The Coke County facility was the state's largest private youth prison. It was the only Texas juvenile facility operated by GEO, one of the nation's biggest private prison contractors.

As a result of the problems discovered at Coke County, Ms. Pope ordered a wholesale review of the agency's contract care system.

"Who the monitors are and where they come from will be one of the issues that we're going to look at," Mr. Hurley said.

TYC employs more than 40 quality assurance specialists and supervisors, according to personnel records provided to The News. Some are stationed at the facilities they monitor, several of which are in remote rural areas.

Mr. Hurley shied away from discussing what actions the agency might undertake if it learns that other monitors had previous employment with contractors they inspect.

"What we need to do is make sure that first of all, every one of these contracts is being monitored and that it's being monitored correctly," he said.

"If the remoteness is a problem, I think that monitoring these contracts accurately will show us that," he said. "We need to have a sort of evidence-based determination."

The Coke County prison is in a one-stoplight town about 30 miles north of San Angelo. It was the town's second-largest employer after the school district. One-third of the school district's $6 million budget is tied to programs at the prison.

Two of the fired TYC employees lived in Bronte. Valerie Jones, former supervisor of the monitoring unit, has two children in the Bronte schools. Patti Frazee, her clerk, is married to a member of the Bronte school board.

Ms. Jones, who worked for GEO as a chemical-dependency counselor from October 1995 to July 1996, declined to comment Thursday. She was hired by TYC as a quality assurance monitor in spring 2000, records show.

Ms. Frazee, reached at her home, said officials of the youth agency never raised any questions about her previous employment with GEO.

"There were not very many jobs out here," she said. "Any time you could take a state job, it was a better job for everybody because it paid more money. That's the only reason. It was like a step up from GEO. That's the way everybody viewed it."

Ms. Frazee was paid $17,950 per year working as bookkeeper for GEO. As a clerk for TYC, she earned $25,035.

The two monitors hired directly from GEO, Brian Lutz and David Roberson, earned $26,800 and $24,500 per year, respectively. With TYC, Mr. Lutz was paid $33,945,while Mr. Roberson received $37,393, agency records show.

Several attempts to locate Mr. Lutz for comment were unsuccessful. Mr. Roberson, reached at his home in San Angelo, declined to be interviewed.

Lisa Williamson worked as a TYC quality assurance monitor at the Coke County facility from 1998 until 2004. She said she knew Mr. Roberson and Ms. Jones well. She described them as honest, hard-working people devoted to their jobs.

"There is not anybody there who I wouldn't trust with my own children," said Ms. Williamson, who now works as a juvenile probation officer in Young County.

Ms. Williamson said she had not worked for GEO. But she said she never saw any of her colleagues who had worked for the company ignore any problems.

While she and the GEO warden, Brett Bement, frequently tried to tell each other how to do their jobs, Ms. Williamson said, she didn't feel pressured and didn't obey him.

"He knew I wasn't a pushover, and he couldn't get by with it. He couldn't have done that with any of us," she said.

Staff writers Holly Becka and Doug J. Swanson contributed to this report.

GEO Group gave money to several state officials' campaigns

State Rep. Jerry Madden held his annual "How Sweet It Is" dessert party in Plano on Thursday night to raise money for a future campaign. One of the sponsors at the $2,500 "cherries jubilee" level was to be The GEO Group Inc., a Florida-based corrections company.

Until last week, GEO operated the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center near Bronte under contract with the Texas Youth Commission. In recent years, the company has donated to the campaigns of some legislators who oversee the youth agency.

Two of them, Mr. Madden and Sen. John Whitmire, are co-chairmen of the special legislative committee established this year to oversee reforms of TYC in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal at the West Texas State School in Pyote.

Mr. Madden, R-Plano, received a total of $2,500 from GEO's political action committee in 2005 and 2006, according to campaign finance records.

Mr. Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, received $2,000 from the political action committee of Wackenhut Corrections Corp., as GEO was previously known, in 2003 and 2004.

Other recipients of GEO or Wackenhut contributions are Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who received $2,500 in 2006, and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who received $1,000 in 2005, state records show.

In addition to Mr. Madden, the chairman of the House Corrections Committee, two other panel members received donations from GEO or Wackenhut. Rep. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, received $250 in 2006. And Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, received $500 from the Wackenhut Corrections PAC in 2004.

Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and another member of the Joint Committee on the Operation and Management of the Texas Youth Commission, received $250 in 2006.

Mr. Madden's predecessor as head of the corrections committee, Ray Allen, received $3,500 in 2003 and 2004 from Wackenhut. He since has left public office and is a lobbyist for GEO.

Mr. Madden acknowledged that lobbyists for GEO might attend his fundraiser at the Southfork Hotel on Thursday night. But he said he had told the lobbyists that he did not want a check.

"Just right now, I think it would be a bad idea to specifically look for contributions from GEO," he said.

Steve McGonigle and Holly Becka

Top 2 officials removed at West Texas State School

The Texas Youth Commission removed the top two officials Thursday at its juvenile prison in Pyote.

Superintendent Mike Davis and Assistant Superintendent Billy Hollis were "recommended for termination," TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said.

Mr. Hurley said the action was taken because of "gross negligence" by the two, who had been in their jobs at the West Texas State School less than three months.

"We had a bomb threat out there this morning," Mr. Hurley said. "They were unable to be contacted for a number of hours. ... It was putting the lives of the staff and youth at risk."

No bomb was found, and no one was injured.

Mr. Hollis said late Thursday that he was too upset to comment about his removal. "I just need a couple of days to calm down," he said.

The Dallas Morning News featured Mr. Hollis in a story Monday about TYC's attempts to rebuild the image of the Pyote prison.

Two former administrators at Pyote, Ray E. Brookins and John Paul Hernandez, have been indicted for sexual abuse of inmates. Their alleged actions, and the subsequent cover-up by some TYC officials, led this year to legislative reforms of the agency and a complete overhaul of top management.

Doug J. Swanson

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