GEO Group gets SLAPP Happy

Via Follow the Money | Ciara O’Neill

Improper influence: loaded term or simply stating the obvious?

On August 3, 2018, lawyers representing the private prison company GEO Group sent a cease-and-desist1 letter to Florida activist group Dream Defenders wherein it accused them of, among other things, spreading “blatantly false accusations that GEO asserts improper influence over the United States political system.” The letter went on to state that the company, which has made more than $470 million from its ongoing contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “has at all times lawfully exercised its right to participate in the political process.”

The politics of campaign finance operates in the tension between what is lawful and what is palatable to voters. Who is to say whether the $16.1 million GEO Group has spent since 2010 on campaign contributions and state lobbying amounts to improper influence?

The Institute has written several recent pieces on this political spending so readers can decide for themselves. But in light of this development, the Institute thought it would be useful to look at the firm Holland & Knight, which drafted the controversial letter.

Holland & Knight is an international law firm based in Florida, and a major political player in its own right. Since 2010, the firm has given $4.4 million to federal, state, and local campaigns. Almost half a million of this sum was to 2018 candidates and committees. They have also been paid $16.3 million for their lobbying services.

Table 1: Top Candidate Recipients of GEO Group and Holland & Knight Contributions, 2010-2017
Candidate* Party Office-State GEO Group Contributions Holland & Knight Contributions Total**
Jerry Brown Democratic Governor-CA $79,900 $9,000 $88,900
Marco A. Rubio Republican U.S. Senator-FL $30,000 $10,000 $40,000
Nathan J. Deal Republican Governor-GA $13,400 $12,400 $25,800
John A. Boehner Republican U.S. House-OH $8,000 $17,500 $25,500
Bennie Thompson Democratic U.S. House-MS $11,500 $13,700 $25,200
Kendrick Meek Democratic U.S. Senate-FL $15,000 $9,800 $24,800
Timothy Scott Republican U.S. Senate-SC $20,000 $3,500 $23,500
Carlos Luis Curbelo Republican U.S. House-FL $13,500 $9,150 $22,650
Jon Tester Democratic U.S. Senate-MT $10,000 $12,500 $22,500
Mike Lee Republican U.S. Senate-UT $20,000 $1,000 $21,000

*This table includes only candidates who received contributions from both GEO Group and Holland & Knight.

**These rankings end with 2017 data because the ongoing data collection for 2018 would subject the results to sudden big changes.

There is a clear overlap in GEO Group’s and Holland & Knight’s giving to candidates and committees. While both companies gave more money to candidates and committees in their home state of Florida — since 2010, GEO gave $3.3 million and Holland & Knight gave $1.2 million — they each gave a substantial proportion of their contributions to federal candidates nationwide.

  • 1. This appears to be a classic “SLAPP case,” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) brought to tamp down public debate and force the defendants to expend financial resources.

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