One of the nation’s largest private prison companies has enlisted the services of a twice-convicted former chief of staff to a key Democratic committee chairman as it attempts to fend off efforts to regulate and even eliminate its industry.
The GEO Group hired the firm Avant Bishop Washington & Black (ABWB) in mid-May, according to a disclosure form filed last week. The firm is led by Lanier Avant, the former chief of staff to House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS). Avant resigned that post in 2017 after pleading guilty to federal criminal charges for failing to file years of income taxes.
That conviction, and another subsequent guilty plea to federal charges of making false statements, were apparently outweighed by other pertinent biographical information—namely, Avant’s ties to Thompson, for whom he also served as a staff director on the Homeland Security Committee.
Underscoring the value of those connections to the GEO Group, and the peril the company now believes it faces in Washington, is the fact that Avant’s firm is the first lobbying shop that the private prison company has hired in nearly two years; and the fact that Avant has barely any lobbying experience prior to scoring this contract.
“We believe strongly in providing people with the tools and skills necessary to have a second chance at life after serving a prison sentence; therefore Lanier’s past never factored into our consideration,” a GEO Group spokesman told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We look forward to having Lanier join our team as we continue our efforts to engage with lawmakers to dispel the many misconceptions and false narratives regarding our company’s long-standing role as a government services provider.”
Avant’s firm is new to K Street. He formed it this year, and hasn’t responded to questions about others involved with the effort, or his run-ins with the law. Moreover, the firm has signed just one other client, the Seafarers International Union’s political arm. Like the GEO Group, the Seafarers have business before Thompson’s committee, which oversees maritime security and commercial matters.
The private prison industry has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks and months as Democratic lawmakers in particular have amped up criticism of migrant detention centers and their operators. Thompson himself has previously been critical of immigration detention contracts with private prison companies. And the 2020 presidential campaign has seen Democratic criticism of the industry only intensify as a number of would-be challengers to President Donald Trump have railed against DHS detention policies. One 2020 candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has even introduced legislation to ban private prisons altogether.
With Democrats retaking the majority in the House of Representatives this year, Avant offers deep ties to a lawmaker whose committee oversees the nation’s immigration enforcement apparatus, which counts the GEO Group as a major contractor. According to Federal Election Commission records, the company has also donated $7,500 to Thompson’s campaign since 2016.
Weeks after the midterm elections that handed Democrats the House majority, Thompson initiated an inquiry into a handful of specific migrant detention facilities operated by private contractors, including an Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility run by the GEO Group.
Incidents at those facilities, Thompson wrote to ICE’s acting director, “raise serious questions... about your agency’s oversight of contract detention facilities.”
Those weren’t new concerns for Thompson. Indeed, he was airing them back when Avant was his chief of staff. In 2016, he criticized the Department of Homeland Security’s “overreliance on private immigration detention facilities” and requested an Inspector General probe into the practice.
“Despite reports of safety and security problems at these facilities, the handful of corporations that run them continue to make enormous profits at taxpayer expense,” he said at the time.
Such problems are now dominating headlines as a massive influx of migrants at the southern U.S. border has stretched DHS resources to the limit. The department has leaned heavily on private prison operators to process and house tens of thousands of migrants, many of them claiming asylum, at their detention facilities.
The GEO Group is one of a number of such contractors, and DHS inspection visits to the company’s facilities last year revealed squalid conditions and instances of detainee mistreatment. The company said last month, when DHS’s report on the inspections became public, that those conditions “were swiftly corrected last year.”
The company nonetheless saw the need to beef up its influence operation in Washington as Democrats in particular more heavily scrutinized private prison companies that operate migrant detention facilities. According to his lobbying disclosure form, Avant will work on issues related to “detention oversight” on the GEO Group’s behalf.
It’s common for companies, particularly those that find themselves embroiled in high-profile political controversies, to shift lobbying strategies in response to changing partisan fortunes in Washington. The GEO Group, for instance, brought on Ballard Partners, a firm with deep ties to the Trump administration, less than two weeks after Trump was inaugurated.
For Avant, the new lobbying deal also underscores how valuable connections to key lawmakers can overshadow a checkered professional history. He left his post as Thompson’s chief of staff after pleading guilty to federal criminal charges related to his failure to file tax returns and his omission of that failure on official background check paperwork.