Once again, it pays off to help powerful special interests as an influential member of the Florida Legislature. Newly reported public documents show former Senate President Joe Negron is being paid $400,000 a year as the general counsel for the giant private prison operator that benefited significantly from his support in Tallahassee. This is such a brazen example of cashing in on public service that somebody ought to ask more questions in a state capital where virtually anything goes.
There is nothing new about the revolving door between the legislative chambers and executive suites. It’s not even unusual for incumbent legislators to work for law firms that lobby the Legislature or to have relatives who lobby. And former legislators often go to work for businesses, universities or lobbying firms that benefited from their support while they were in public office.
What is unusual about Negron is that this example is so egregious. In May, the outgoing Senate president announced he would not serve the remaining two years of his term and would leave office in early November. In late November, the GEO Group revealed in public documents it had hired the Stuart Republican as its top lawyer. Last week, Politico reported that a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows Negron has a base salary of $400,000 a year for two years with the option of additional two-year terms until he is 67 years old. Negron, 57, reported on his 2018 financial disclosure that he was paid $210,268 by his former law firm. All of that public service appears to have paid off in a soft landing for the rest of his working life.
Of course, the GEO Group received its return on investment up front. Negron was a reliable supporter of private state prisons for years. In 2012, when the GEO Group was a client of the law firm where Negron worked at the time, Negron was among the leaders of an effort to privatize much of Florida’s prison system that was defeated by just two votes in a dramatic moment on the Senate floor. In January 2017, shortly before his first legislative session as Senate president, Negron announced he was leaving that law firm to “avoid even the possible appearance’’ of a conflict of interest.
In hindsight, that was particularly prudent. The state budget approved by the Legislature that spring included an additional $2.9 million so the GEO Group could expand a rehabilitation program. In Negron’s second session as Senate president last year, the Legislature included a $4 million increase in funding to companies that operate Florida’s private prisons, including the GEO Group, which operates five of the state’s seven private prisons.
Negron’s job as general counsel actually is only the latest installment of GEO’s payment plan. As the Times/Herald capital bureau reported in 2016, the GEO group steered at least $288,000 to political accounts supporting Negron or his wife, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress. The GEO Group would not comment on those political contributions at the time, and it did not respond to Politico regarding its report last week of Negron’s salary as the company’s general counsel.
In a written statement Wednesday to the Times editorial board, the GEO Group said its relationship with the state spans more than 20 years and that Negron was hired because of his “vast legal experience.’’ But Negron’s consistent support of legislation and appropriations benefiting the company and his quick hiring after leaving the Legislature deserves further scrutiny. Even if this is just business as usual, it undermines public confidence in the Florida Legislature and fuels the perception that too many elected officials are more interested in their private gain than the public good.