Ala. state auditor sues to block governor's prison lease plan

Jim Zeigler has criticized the plan to lease two new privately run men's prisons as a poor use of taxpayer dollars


By Mike Cason
al.com
        
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — State Auditor Jim Zeigler and state Rep. John Rogers of Birmingham filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court Tuesday to try to block Gov. Kay Ivey’s plan to lease and operate two new men’s prisons.

Joining Zeigler and Rogers were Kenny Glasgow, a pastor and prisoner rights advocate from Houston County, and Leslie Ogburn, whose property adjoins the site of a proposed prison near Tallassee in Elmore County, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are represented by Montgomery lawyer Kenny Mendelsohn. Defendants in the case are Ivey, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, the ADOC, Government Real Estate Solutions of Central Alabama LLC, and Government Real Estate Solutions of South Alabama LLC. The two real estate entities were formed last year and are owned by CoreCivic, the lawsuit says.

“This prison plan would be a 30-year mistake,
“This prison plan would be a 30-year mistake," Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler said in a statement about the lawsuit. (Julie Bennett/AL.com)

The lawsuit claims the leases violate restrictions in the state Constitution on putting the state of Alabama in debt without the consent of the Legislature. It claims the leases violate a state law that prohibits the ADOC from leasing facilities without consent of the Legislature.

The plaintiffs have asked the court to declare the leases null and void and to block the execution of the agreements.

Gina Maiola, press secretary for Ivey, declined comment, saying the governor’s office had not seen the complaint.

Zeigler, a Republican, called it a bipartisan lawsuit. Rogers is a longtime Democratic member of the House of Representatives.

Zeigler has criticized the governor’s plan as a poor use of taxpayer dollars.

“This prison plan would be a 30-year mistake,” Zeigler said in a press release about the lawsuit. “It would force Alabama taxpayers to pay rents starting at $94 million a year and going up to $106 million.  At the end of 30 years, the state would own equity in the prisons of zero. No equity. This is a bad business plan.”

On Feb. 1, Ivey signed 30-year leases for new men’s prisons that CoreCivic would build in Elmore and Escambia counties. The governor’s office said then that the financial terms would not be complete until CoreCivic obtained financing for the projects.

Last week, two investment banks backed out of the plan, Barclays and Keybanc Capital Markets.

A third prison is planned for Bibb County. It would be built and owned by a development team called Alabama Prison Transformation Partners. Ivey said in February that lease was still being negotiated.

In response to the banks pulling out of the plan, Ivey said the state remained fully committed to the projects. Ivey and Dunn have said the new prisons are essential to overhauling a prison system that faces a lawsuit from the Department of Justice because of the levels of violence in the aging, crowded, and understaffed prisons.

The three new prisons would hold a total of about 10,000 inmates and would replace as many as 11 of the 13 men’s prisons. Ivey and Dunn said the new prisons would be safer, more efficient to staff, and would accommodate education, rehabilitation, and health care for inmates.

On Friday, Ivey said she would work with the Legislature to find ways to finance the prisons.

“We’re going to continue to move forward and work with the Legislature to find a way to make this happen,” Ivey said. “We’ve got to have improved prisons, we’ve got to have new prisons and we’ve got to have criminal justice reform.”

In the Legislature, the chairmen of the General Fund budget committees in the House and Senate said last week it was time for Ivey to drop the lease plan after the banks pulled out. Rep. Steve Clouse and Sen. Greg Albritton said the better approach would be for the Legislature to approve a bond issue to build prisons that the state would own.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley proposed a bond issue to build prisons, but lawmakers did not approve it.

Jackson McNeely, who has helped organize opposition to the prison planned for the Brierfield community in Bibb County, issued a statement supporting the lawsuit.

“Since the moment we discovered that Governor Ivey intended to build a mega prison on top of our community, people in Brierfield have been screaming that we do not want it,” McNeely said. “Nobody asked us - we had to find out about it in the newspaper. Nobody did an environmental impact study or infrastructure assessment. It’s ridiculous. If Governor Ivey and other elected officials won’t listen to the people in these rural communities, then I suppose they’ll just have to listen to us in court.”

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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