News & Election Videos

Ally of Ohio governor lobbies for prison operator

Julie Carr Smyth

Gov. John Kasich's long-time adviser and former congressional chief of staff has lined up a stable of clients _ including a private prison operator _ that he'll pitch to the new administration as a newly minted lobbyist, according to reports filed for a Monday deadline.

Don Thibaut's client list includes Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America, which stands potentially to gain if Kasich pursues expanded prison privatization to help close an estimated $8 billion budget gap. The company retained Thibaut's new lobbying firm in mid-December.

Kasich's new prisons director, Gary Mohr, also spent five years as a consultant at CCA _ which designs, builds, manages and operates federal, state and local prisons across the country.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company hired Thibaut's firm, The Credo Company, to share the benefits of private prison operations with the new governor and state lawmakers.

"We have always retained a presence in the states where we operate, as well as in states where he have a business interest," Owen said. "Our hope would be that Credo would carry our educational message that public-private partnerships bring the best of both worlds, the strong accountability and oversight of government and the cost-efficiency and innovation of business."

Of Thibaut's past ties to Kasich, Owen said, "I'm sure we're certainly aware of whatever prior relationships they would have had."

CCA operates one federal prison in Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, but no state facilities. Two of Ohio's state prisons _ North Coast Correctional Facility and Lake Erie Correctional Institution _ are already privately operated, by Management Training Corp., a CCA competitor.

Thibaut and lobbying partner Robert Kovey also registered to lobby for firms specializing in energy, education, technology, and engineering, according to information contained in the companies' business filings and on their websites. Clients registered with the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission include American Electric Power, IGS Energy, Bluemile, IQ Innovations, and MS Consultants Inc.

Catherine Turcer, of the government watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action, said it's difficult to know whether Thibaut may be aligning his lobbying business to policy initiatives he anticipates from the Kasich administration because of their longstanding relationship.

"This really does come down to the chicken and the egg question," she said. "If you know the public official well enough, you can pick the clients that reflect his policies and philosophies _ and the flow of the political dollars."

Credo and Thibaut declined comment Monday.

Kasich, a Republican who took office in January, has said he'll consider privatizing many state functions _ including prisons _ to make the state more competitive and balance the state budget.

Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said Mohr spent the bulk of his long career in Ohio's public prison system. He worked for five years as a training and management consultant to CCA, ending in 2009.

"The governor's placed a variety of privatization options on the table and he believes that Director Mohr's experiences in both the public and private corrections industries brings value to his position and provides him with a unique perspective," LoParo said.

CCA's Owen said Mohr is a nationally respected expert in corrections management with knowledge of both the public and private sectors.

LoParo said Mohr has no financial interest from his days working for CCA, such as being owed a pension. However, he plans to recuse himself from all private prison matters as an extra precaution.

"The director is in the process of establishing a formal process that will recuse him from any business dealings having to do with private prison industries," LoParo said. "All selections, reviews or dealings will be delegated, either to a committee or another individual within the organization. That's done in an effort to ensure that any process is carried in a transparent, fair and ethical manner."

The Associated Press