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Davis Gets More Money From Prison Guards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis received an additional $251,000 from California’s prison guards union earlier this month, only weeks after the governor granted the officers a pay hike of as much as $1 billion and fulfilled their wish by proposing to close five private prisons.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.'s donation, dated March 13, is the largest single check Davis has received since taking office in 1999, though three other donors have given lump sums of $250,000.

With the latest check, the union has contributed $306,000 directly to the Democratic governor, plus $356,000 through the union’s “Governor’s Cup” golf fund-raisers at Pebble Beach.

Davis has brought in more than $1 million a month since taking office, and has roughly $30 million available for his November election campaign against Republican Bill Simon Jr. The governor defends his constant push to raise money, saying it’s required to compete against independently wealthy candidates such as Simon.

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In an interview Thursday, Davis made no mention of the prison guards’ March 13 donation, but said there is no connection between his official actions and campaign donations.

On Jan. 16, he signed legislation that will grant prison guards a 33.76% pay hike by 2006, giving them virtual parity with California Highway Patrol officers and police in Los Angeles, San Diego and other big cities. He included the proposal to close the privately operated prisons as part of his budget, released on Jan. 10.

Union President Don Novey said that despite the donation, the guards haven’t decided whether to endorse Davis or Simon in this year’s campaign. He would not specify why the union made the latest donation, except to say there was no connection between the money and the governor’s recent actions.

“That had nothing to do with it, but I guess it would be good cannon fodder,” Novey said, adding that though Davis often inquires about donations, the union’s executive board made the decision about the amount and timing.

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Novey said the union will spend addition sums in the coming election: “I put notice to my Republican friends that we will not determine the money we’re putting into the governor’s race until we’ve done the interviews with the two final candidates for governor.”

The union gave a single check for $425,000 to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in October 1994. Like Davis, Wilson signed labor pacts giving guards bigger raises than most other state employees.

Simon spokesman Jamie Fisfis said the Republican candidate holds out hope that he can win the union’s endorsement.

Fisfis also criticized Davis for accepting the donation after taking actions that benefited the donor: “The governor has a duty to avoid the appearance of impropriety or that he is bullying donors by holding special chits or legislation over their heads. In this case, he has failed that duty.”

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In the Thursday interview, Davis defended his decision to shut five of the state’s nine corporate-run prisons when their contracts expire on June 30, saying private firms should not be involved in public safety matters. He twice noted that he has not discussed the issue with the union leadership since he took office. The issue was among those the union asked Davis about when he was running for governor in 1998, however.

“I do believe philosophically--although I didn’t have a conversation on this in the three years and three months that I’ve been governor--there are some things a state should do,” Davis said. “If we learned anything from this energy debacle, it is that private companies will do what’s in the interest of their shareholders, and sometimes those interests are antithetical to the public. I see no reason why private companies should be in the business of building prisons.”

Davis said the decision to shut the private prisons will save the state $5 million, although the facilities’ advocates say the decision could cost the state money. Davis said a recent decline in prison population to 156,000 from a high of 162,000 played a role in the decision.

Recent state audits have given high marks to the five targeted private prisons. The facilities house a combined 1,400 low-security inmates, most of whom have been convicted of drug-related crimes. The prisons’ owners, who range from publicly traded corporations that operate in several states to a firm founded by two men in Bakersfield, have mounted a letter-writing and lobbying campaign.

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“Good Lord,” Gary White, co-founder of Mesa Verde, a private prison in Bakersfield, said upon hearing of the $251,000 donation. “What we’re doing is planning for the worst and hoping for the best. . . . The only thing that would change his mind is an overwhelming public response. It doesn’t look very good.”

The union, which doesn’t represent private prison employees, argues that public safety should be the government’s domain.

As reported by The Times on March 15, a union lobbyist who has since left the organization hailed the governor’s decision to close the private prisons in a telephone recording intended for union members. He extolled the labor contract, citing a legislative analysis estimating that the richer salaries and benefits “conservatively” would cost the state $500 million to $1 billion annually by 2006, the contract’s final year.

Under legislation by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), candidates must post donations of $5,000 or more on the California secretary of state’s Web site within two weeks of receiving them. The $251,000 donation, though received on March 13, became public late Wednesday.

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Six-figure donations are not unusual for Davis. He has received 53 donations of $100,000 or more since 1999; several donors have given cumulative sums of $100,000 or more.

The biggest single donation to Davis’ 1998 campaign was $500,000 from the Southern California District Council of Carpenters. The prison guards union spent $2.3 million directly and indirectly in so-called independent expenditures on Davis’ behalf in the 1998 election after it endorsed him over then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

Current law imposes no cap on donations to candidates for statewide office, but limits will take effect after the November election.


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