Jury Investigates Private Panhandle Prison Deal

TALLAHASSEE — As legislative leaders continue the push to privatize 19 South Florida prisons, the state’s most ambitious private prison project in Northwest Florida is enmeshed in a grand jury investigation.

The federal inquiry into the Blackwater River Correctional Facility has a broad sweep, touching former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the economic development arm of Santa Rosa County, and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Since March, the Pensacola-based grand jury has issued more than six subpoenas seeking documents and testimony into the $121 million state contract that cleared the way for the Boca Raton-based Geo Group to build a prison near the Panhandle city of Milton.

Neither the U.S. attorney nor the FBI will go on the record about the investigation. But subpoenas filed in court indicate they are seeking information about “Project Justice,” the 2008 name given to the private prison project by TEAM Santa Rosa, the county’s economic development agency. The subpoenas also show that investigators are interested in TEAM Santa Rosa’s relationship with Sansom and the deal the county made to secure the land.

The events surrounding the grand jury investigation began as early as February 2008 when TEAM Santa Rosa met privately with Gaetz, Sansom and several board members. Gaetz was a freshman state senator at the time and Sansom was incoming House budget chairman. Among the items discussed was “prison funding support,” according to documents released by TEAM Santa Rosa.

In March 2008, midway through the legislative session, Sansom traveled to Boca Raton, headquarters of the Geo Group, on what the lawmaker described in a travel voucher as “personal business.” A week later, Sansom inserted the prison language into the budget. The Geo Group won the bid.

Source: Mary Ellen Klas, St. Petersburg Times