Private prison, gambling and marijuana businesses showered General Assembly with campaign cash before session

By: and - January 21, 2021 12:01 am

(Alex Potemkin/Getty Images)

The company that operates Virginia’s only private prison doled out campaign contributions to 29 Virginia lawmakers ahead of a push to pass legislation banishing the for-profit corrections industry from the state, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

And when the bill came before a Senate panel last week for its first hearing, it died a quick and sudden death, with some of the legislators who received the donations speaking most forcefully against it.

Lawmakers, who almost always maintain that there is no connection between campaign contributions and their legislative decision making, called it a coincidence.

“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the bill at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.

GEO Group, a publicly traded private prison operator based in Florida, isn’t the only company that boosted its contributions heading into the 2021 legislative session. Campaign finance records show an influx of spending by a multi-state cannabis company with a stake in Virginia’s emerging marijuana market and the so-called skill-game industry, whose gambling machines may or may not be banned by policymakers over the next few months.

In GEO’s case, the contributions late last year represented its first significant gifts to sitting Virginia lawmakers in more than a decade, according to VPAP. The donations, which totaled $35,000, came after lawmakers directed the Department of Corrections to study how much it would cost for the state to assume control of the Lawrenceville Correctional Center, for which GEO Group is currently paid more than $2 million a month to manage.

GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment about its giving in Virginia, but has defended its management of the prison, which faced criticism from family members and drew a rebuke from state corrections officials as it struggled to keep the facility adequately staffed amid the pandemic.

Most of GEO’s donations ranged from $250 to $2,000. But the biggest beneficiary of the company’s was Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who accepted a $10,000 donation from the company. As chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he would have been a key decision maker in whether to set aside the $9 million the Department of Corrections estimated it would cost the state to assume management of Lawrenceville.

“We do not comment on individual contributions,” Torian’s spokeswoman, Gianna DeJoy, said in an email, adding that overall Torian was pleased with his fundraising last year, which she said he planned to use to help elect fellow Democrats around the state.

This year was the first time Virginia lawmakers and candidates had to disclose big campaign donations received just prior to the legislative session.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a new law requiring immediate disclosure of any donation of $1,000 or more from Jan. 1 through the day before the session. Because legislators are banned from raising money during the session, there’s usually a last-minute fundraising blitz before the ban kicks in. 

Under the old reporting system, those big donations, many of which come from companies who might be affected by General Assembly decisions, wouldn’t become public until the session was over.

Jushi, a multi-state cannabis company that controls the only medical marijuana license for Northern Virginia, has donated a total of $34,500 to 19 lawmakers since Dec. 30. Those were the first donations the company has ever made in Virginia.

Marijuana legalization is a top issue in the session, one involving complex regulatory decisions that could shape whether a few big companies dominate the adult-use market or small and minority-owned startups are given a chance to profit.

After prospective casino operators spent hundreds of thousands of dollars convincing voters in four Virginia cities to approve casinos last year, gambling interests were again opening up their wallets heading into the session.

Legislators received nearly $100,000 from an assortment of gambling companies, most of them seemingly connected to the thousands of slots-like gambling machines set up in truck stops, bars and convenience stores throughout the state. 

The so-called skill game industry established itself in Virginia within the last few years, even though its machines were unregulated, untaxed and of questionable legality under the state’s previously strict anti-gambling laws. The legislature seemed poised to ban the machines last year, but the industry got a last-minute reprieve when Gov. Ralph Northam decided to let the  games stay another year while regulating and taxing them to generate revenue for a COVID-19 relief funds.

That time’s almost up. The governor’s new budget proposal assumes the machines will be banned on July 1. But some are pushing for another extension into the summer of 2022, arguing the money the machines generate for COVID-19 relief is too important to give up.

It’s a long road to recovery. Now is not the time to let up on the gas,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wrote in a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Some lawmakers have said they’re not interested in making another deal with an industry that didn’t ask for permission before rolling out its machines all over the state. 

“This is, in my opinion, a massive rip-off of the people of Virginia,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, said at a committee meeting last week.

Not all the big pre-session donations came from companies with business before the legislature.

Zinc Collective LLC, a California-based Democratic advocacy group, contributed more than $600,000 to the Virginia House Democratic Caucus in two donations made in January and December.

Kate Sarna, a spokeswoman for the House Democrats, said the money was tied to a paid fellowship initiative meant to promote women and people of color as staffers in Democratic campaigns.

“The Zinc Collective is an organization that provides mentoring and training to people of all backgrounds looking to work on Democratic legislative campaigns,” Sarna said.

All 100 House seats are up for election this year.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]