Deede Weithorn, a former Miami Beach commissioner and current Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, pointed to a personal relationship with the wife of a GEO Group executive after her campaign accepted two maximum donations from the South Florida private prison contractor.
GEO Group operates six private prisons in the state and receives more money from Immigration and Customs Enforcement than any other company. It is a frequent contributor to Florida campaigns, but accepting donations from private prison firms is becoming increasingly unpopular, especially among Democrats.
The Florida Democratic Party, which last took money from GEO Group in March 2017, recently voted to reject private-prison donations.
Weithorn is the only non-sitting Democratic candidate in the state to take donations from GEO Group's political action committee, The GEO Group Inc., during this election cycle, campaign finance disclosures show.
Three Democratic state representatives -- Emily Ann Slosberg, Kimberly Daniels and Nicholas Duran -- have also received donations from GEO Group's committee this cycle, disclosures show. Each received one donation of the maximum amount allowed, $1,000.
GEO Group has also donated to about 30 Republican candidates in Florida, including incumbents and others currently seeking office.
Even some Republicans, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, have turned away donations from GEO Group in recent months. In May, Scott’s campaign for Senate listed two $5,000 checks from GEO Group’s PAC as “void,” according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks federal campaign contributions. Ten members of Congress rejected or refunded contributions from the company in June.
GEO Group has donated to Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson in the past, but Nelson does not appear to have taken money from the company in his current reelection bid.
The two donations to Weithorn’s campaign were made July 20 for $1,000 each. One came from The GEO Group Inc., while the other came from GEO Care LLC, a subsidiary that specializes in mental health and residential treatment services.
Asked about the donations by phone Tuesday, Weithorn cited a “personal relationship” with the family of Adam Hasner, a former Republican state representative who is now GEO Group’s vice president of public policy.
Brendan Olsen, a campaign spokesman, clarified that Weithorn got to know Hasner’s wife, Jillian, through her work with the charity Take Stock in Children, where Jillian Hasner is chief executive.
In an emailed statement, Weithorn said she is committed to holding prison companies accountable.
“I am fully committed to ensuring that public as well as contract correctional institutions are held accountable when it comes to maintaining tolerable living conditions,” she said. Weithorn noted that some of the “worst abuse” has taken place in publicly run prisons, adding: “I will personally make it my duty to root out corruption and abuse wherever it is.”
Weithorn served two terms on the Miami Beach city commission and is a certified public accountant. She first ran for the District 113 House seat in 2015.
A review of campaign finance disclosures shows that Weithorn’s Democratic primary opponents in District 113, Michael Grieco and Kubs Lalchandani, have not received any donations from GEO Group.
The three Democrats and Republican Jonathan “J.P.” Parker are vying for the seat of Rep. David Richardson, who is vacating the position to run for Congress in Florida’s 27th district. District 113 is a Democratic stronghold that includes Little Havana, home to a large population of immigrants from Cuba and Central and South America.
GEO Group, a multinational company, has headquarters in Boca Raton and is America’s second-largest private prison contractor. It operates three facilities in South Florida: Broward Transitional Center, an ICE facility that detains immigrants in "low-level" cases, as well as South Bay Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility and Moore Haven Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility. It also runs three facilities in Florida’s panhandle.
The company has seen a resurgence under the Trump administration. In 2016, it donated $225,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee, sparking a lawsuit by the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center over rules barring federal contractors from making campaign contributions.
Last year, GEO Group held its annual leadership conference at President Trump’s golf resort in Doral. Its stock prices soared after Trump's election.
In 2007, Texas officials shut down GEO Group’s juvenile justice center after investigators found dire conditions for inmates. In 2009, the company closed a prison in Pennsylvania amid multiple wrongful death lawsuits. In 2014, a class-action lawsuit sought damages for immigrants held in a GEO Group detention center in Colorado who said they were forced to clean the facility without pay, under threat of solitary confinement. An appeals court ruled earlier this year that the lawsuit can proceed.
Last week, GEO Group sent a cease and desist letter to Dream Defenders, a Florida activist group that has protested the company and helped convince the Florida Democratic Party to stop accepting donations from private prison companies, according to the Miami New Times. GEO Group said Dream Defenders was spreading misinformation in an attempt to incite violence at its facilities, a claim the activist group refuted.