The Prison Politics of Gus Puryear
Nothing is more revealing of George W. Bush and his presidency than his choice of personnel. He has already given rise to a new term, coined by writers at the New Republic, “hackocracy.” It describes his penchant for selecting figures based not on aptitude and competence, but service to him personally and to the Republican Party. The ranks of the Justice Department and the seats of the federal bench have hardly been immune from this process. To the contrary, Bush has worked hard to uproot competent career employees and plant his political hacks deep in the fields of career service.
This week’s Time Magazine brings us a portrait by Adam Zagorin of one of Bush’s 28 pending judicial candidates: a 39-year-old lawyer named Gus Puryear IV. Judicial candidates usually have a résumé that speaks of dedicated public service—work as a prosecutor and some time on the bench. But Puryear reflects the new Rovian judicial model. His principal qualifier is dedicated service in the trenches of partisan political work. Puryear has worked in the Bush-Cheney campaign, playing a number of key roles. For instance, he served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s debate coach in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, and he’s a close personal friend of Cheney’s son-in-law, Philip Perry.
Puryear’s relationship with Perry seems to have been critical for his career trajectory in several respects. Puryear is the general counsel of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company which operates prisons for state and federal governments, and is filled with deep cross-funding relationships with the Republican Party. Perry was the general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and DHS was, unsurprisingly, a prime customer of CCA.
Zagorin recounts that a former senior manager of CCA has recently furnished a glimpse under the sheets of Puryear’s conduct and style as a corporate counsel.
Puryear oversaw a reporting system in which accounts of major, sometimes violent prison disturbances and other significant events were often masked or minimized in accounts provided to government agencies with oversight over prison contracts. Ronald T. Jones, the former CCA manager, alleges that the company even began keeping two sets of books — one for internal use that described prison deficiencies in telling detail, and a second set that Jones describes as “doctored” for public consumption, to limit bad publicity, litigation or fines that could derail CCA’s multimillion-dollar contracts with federal, state or local agencies. . .
Jones knows CCA intimately. Until last summer, the longtime Republican was in charge of “quality assurance” records for CCA prisons across the U.S. He says that in 2005, after CCA found itself embarrassed on several occasions by the public release of internal records to government agencies, Puryear mandated that detailed, raw reports on prison shortcomings carry a blanket assertion of “attorney-client privilege,” thus forbidding their release without his written consent. From then on, Jones says, the audits delivered to agencies were filled with increasingly vague performance measures. “If the wrong party found out that a facility’s operations scored low in an audit, then CCA could be subject to litigation, fines or worse,” explains Jones. “When Mr. Puryear felt there was highly sensitive or potentially damaging information to CCA, I would then be directed to remove that information from an audit report.” Puryear would not comment on the allegations. Jones resigned from CCA last summer to pursue a legal career.
According to Jones, Puryear was most concerned about what CCA described as “zero tolerance” events, or ZT’s — including unnatural deaths, major disturbances, escapes and sexual assaults. According to Jones, bonuses and job security at the company were tied to reporting low ZT numbers. Low numbers also pleased CCA’s government clients, as well as the company’s board, which received a regular tally, and Wall Street analysts concerned about potentially costly lawsuits that CCA might face.
No business wants its seamy underside to be revealed to the public, of course, and Puryear’s manipulations can be seen as an exercise in public relations management. But a general counsel has some additional responsibilities. When his client is a public company, he has duties of fair disclosure, and he also has duties to keep his management and board of directors informed about what’s going on at the facilities under CCA management.
The Zagorin report points to a just-sweep-it-under-the-carpet approach to management that may raise fair questions about a judicious mindset. But even more troubling is Puryear’s whole résumé which is notably long on partisan politics and short on the sort of qualifications that usually go with a judicial nominee.
Wrong for Civil Rights
Under Bush, the Civil Rights Division has become an Orwellian perversion. Its function was once to protect the civil rights of ordinary citizens. But under Bush, it has been converted into a political machine to advance the electoral agenda of the G.O.P. and to disadvantage the constituency it was created to protect. Recent scandals have forced a housecleaning. But now the Bush Administration advances Grace Chung Becker to head this division. Her nomination has to be seen as “more of the same.”
The New York Times this morning reviews some of the reasons why Grace Chung Becker should be rejected:
The civil rights division has been in sorry shape for some time. At Congressional hearings last year, its former head admitted that he boasted of hiring Republicans for nonpolitical attorney positions. The division also has repeatedly taken anti-civil-rights stands. Notoriously, it endorsed a Georgia voter ID law that was widely likened to a poll tax because it charged people for the ID they needed to vote.
The Senate should only confirm a division head who demonstrates a commitment both to fixing these problems and rooting out the damage that has been done. Ms. Becker fails on both counts. When Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked about the department’s politicized hiring, she insisted it was improper for her to answer because an investigation is under way. That is a made-up rule. Congress, which oversees the Justice Department, has a right to have its questions answered. If Ms. Becker is this contemptuous of the Senate’s role at her confirmation hearings, it is disturbing to think how dismissive she will be if she is confirmed.
Ms. Becker has also taken stands that undermine civil rights. She signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold an Indiana voter ID law that would disenfranchise many minority voters. The position she took was helpful for the Republican Party, but it hurt the people she was supposed to look out for. When asked why she signed the brief, Ms. Becker again stonewalled.
Becker’s conduct exemplifies perfectly just what has taken the Civil Rights Division down. If confirmed, she would most likely continue to vandalize the department.