No Comment — March 17, 2008, 8:42 am

More Bad Nominees

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Amount American Airlines saved in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first class:

$40,000

A daddy longlegs preserved in amber 99 million years ago was found to have an erection.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today