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Tom Gores resigns from LACMA board over prison phones investment

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores addresses the media at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores addresses the media at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich.

(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

NBA team owner Tom Gores stepped down from the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday night after calls for the billionaire’s ouster over his investment firm’s ownership of a prison telephone company.

Criminal justice activists have been hounding the 56-year-old private equity titan since his Beverly Hills firm acquired Securus Technologies in 2017. Last month, two groups sent a letter to the museum’s leadership accusing Gores of the “deliberate exploitation of Black, Brown, and economically distressed communities.”

The letter to LACMA Director Michael Govan and the board’s two co-chairs was accompanied by a petition signed by more than 100 artists that later grew to include donors, as well as artists such as Monica Majoli, John Houck and Sam Durant, who have exhibited at the museum.

The controversy was discussed last week at a Board of Trustees meeting, an attendee told The Times, during which Gores defended the investment and told trustees about how his Platinum Equity firm was in the midst of reforming Securus. The company has been accused of charging prisoners exorbitant prices for calls.

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There was no resolution of the issue, but in a letter a Platinum spokesman said was emailed Thursday night, Gores wrote to Govan and the trustees that the firm had no idea the investment would become a “nexus for addressing the political, social, racial and economic issues roiling America today.”

The letter said the firm was committed to the reforms but was fighting “entrenched opposition from critics on one side who think we’re moving too far and too fast, and on the other side who think we’re not moving far enough or fast enough.”

“Paraphrasing a salient question at last week’s board meeting: ‘Okay Tom, we appreciate your efforts to “take the hill” and reform Securus. But why does LACMA have to take the hill with you?’ The simple answer is: You don’t. Effective immediately, I resign my position on the board and forego all ties to the institution.”

Govan issued a short email statement Friday afternoon saying, “We’re very grateful to Tom, not only for his generosity and support over more than a decade, but also for this additional gesture of support for LACMA right now.”

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Bianca Tylek, founder of New York-based criminal justice group Worth Rises, who co-signed the letter to LACMA, said that Gores “saw the writing on the wall” and stepped down before he could be forced out. She thanked trustees who supported activists in the matter.

“We hope it sends him the clearest sign yet that people are done with the excuses. The pressure won’t stop until he does what’s right: meets advocacy demands for reform — not his own — and gets out of this predatory business once and for all,” Tylek said in an email.

Gores, who owns the Detroit Pistons and has been a LACMA trustee since 2006, is not the first businessman to resign from a prominent museum board over links to law enforcement or prisons. Warren Kanders resigned last year as vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York over his ownership of Safariland, a company that makes tear gas and other equipment used by law enforcement and the military.

Securus, which Platinum acquired for $1.6 billion, provides telephone, video calls, email and other services to thousands of correctional facilities, making it the second-largest prison telecom by market share. Such firms monitor inmate communications for security and charge a premium for their services, costs typically borne by detainees and their families, a population that is disproportionately poor and nonwhite.

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Criminal justice activists began their campaign against Gores in 2018, calling on him to make reforms and sell the telecom. Last year, they tried to persuade public pension funds to not invest in Platinum’s latest buyout fund, yet the firm raised its biggest fund yet.

The activists then threatened to bring their campaign against Gores to Detroit, where the businessman grew up in nearby Flint and has a higher public profile. He also has a reputation as a progressive team owner, providing financial assistance to the Flint community amid its water crisis four years ago and recently allowing the Pistons’ new practice facility to serve as a polling place.

Platinum, which specializes in turning around troubled companies, announced earlier this year that it had brought in new management at Securus and released pledged reforms. The company said last month that it had brought the average cost of a call to under 15 cents per minute and renegotiated 58 contracts that had rates that “previously exceeded national averages,” lowering them in some cases by 60% or more.

Gores noted in his resignation letter that he has pledged “100% of my personal interest” in the prison telecom “to meet the challenges of reform.” A spokesman said that means he is funneling all his personal profits from the investment back into Securus.

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Activists have not been satisfied with the pace of rate reductions. Last year, they were successful in lobbying New York to become the first major city to offer free phone calls in jails after the corrections system negotiated a contract with Securus that got the city’s costs down to 3 cents a minute. This year, San Francisco became the first county in the nation to offer free phone calls when it negotiated a contract with another telecom for a fixed rate per line.

The campaign against Gores heated up in the wake of demands for criminal-justice reform that arose since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. NBA players protested police shootings of Black Americans and rallied around the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.

The activist groups are seeking to make investments in prison operators and service providers so toxic that the industry will be starved of capital.

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Jessica Simmons, a Los Angeles artist and former LACMA research assistant who started the petition drive to oust Gores from the museum’s board, said she was “thrilled” that board members recognized “the severity of the issue as well as their complicity in it.”

“This is a testament to that fact that the greater arts community will not accept anything less than full transparency and accountability from our institutions. To be clear, this represents a crucial first step in a long march towards meaningful institutional change, both at LACMA and beyond — and other museums should be on notice,” she said in an email.


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