The Revolving Prison Door
During 12 years in the Texas House, the legislative duties of Rep. Ray Allen, a Grand Prairie Republican, have periodically cross-pollinated his private business enterprises. So when this one-time chair of the House Corrections Committee recently left the Legislature to lobby, he seemed predestined to hustle for prison interests.
Yet destiny has its twists. This conservative, who amassed a dismal House environmental record, is working closely with Austin environmental activist Jeff Heckler. While Allen has yet to report any clients with obvious prison ties, Heckler and Allen’s former chief of staff do lobby for corrections-industry clients. Asked about his odd-fellow relationship with Allen, Heckler says, “We’re not working on any environmental stuff. We’re mostly working on corrections stuff.” Welcome to the lobby, where nothing is as it seems.
When Allen resigned in January, he expressed frustration over trying to support himself while working as a poorly paid lawmaker during yet another special session. “I simply cannot afford to serve on a $600-a-month salary with no other source of income,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. While candid about his competing personal and legislative obligations, Allen—who now reports lobby income of up to $485,000—has been sensitive to suggestions that this juggling act created occasional conflicts.
The Houston Chronicle previously reported on Allen’s fortuitous timing in founding Grand Prairie’s Academy for Firearms Training in 1995. This occurred soon after two House panels that Allen chaired discharged legislation to let Texans carry concealed guns—if they first obtained handgun-safety training.
Three years ago, the Observer and Texans for Public Justice reported that Allen, who then chaired the House Corrections Committee, was promoting a prison-privatization bill while he and his top aide lobbied outside Texas for private prison interests. Allen responded that his client, the National Correctional Industries Association (which counted two major private prison companies among its many members), promotes prison labor—not prison privatization.
With this in mind, we turn to the delicate matter of Allen’s latest ties to the prison lobby. So far Allen has reported in public filings that eight clients are paying him a total of between $230,000 and $485,000 this year (Texas lobby incomes are reported in ranges). While none of Allen’s reported clients boast obvious prison ties, at least one of them has a keen interest in prison contracts. Allen also works closely with two lobbyists who represent prison companies. One is Scott Gilmore, who previously served as Allen’s legislative chief of staff and was also the lawmaker’s lobby partner. The other is Heckler, the Austin activist. Four of Heckler’s six lobby clients double as clients of Allen or Gilmore. Meanwhile, Gilmore is under contract to the Solutions Group—Heckler’s lobby firm.
Gilmore left Allen’s office to form his SEG Strategic Alliances lobbying firm in late 2004. Last year Gilmore reported lobby income of up to $220,000 from six clients. Leading them were clients from the industry that he and Allen recently oversaw. Gilmore and Heckler both lobbied last year for AT&T Inmate Calling Services and Atlantic Shores Healthcare—the mental-health subsidiary of private prison giant GEO Group Inc., formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections. Gilmore also has been representing the Keefe Group—the nation’s leading supplier of prison commissaries. This year Gilmore signed CentraCore Properties Trust, a for-profit investor in prisons.
While Gilmore and Allen worked together for years, the current collaboration of these lobbyists (who count Chevron Corp. among their top clients) with a devoted environmentalist such as Heckler was less foreseeable. Heckler is known locally for leading turn-of-the century opposition to a fuel company’s bid to transport gasoline through an aging pipeline over Austin watersheds. Heckler previously served as treasurer of the Save Our Springs Alliance. SOS promotes tough water-quality restrictions in Austin that the Texas Legislature often seeks to overturn for developers.
As recently as 2003, then-Rep. Allen voted for an “anti-SOS bill” that would have undermined the local water-quality controls championed by Heckler’s SOS. Opponents of this failed legislation (House Bill 2130) included SOS, the City of Austin and the neighboring community of Sunset Valley. Yet today Sunset Valley is paying up to $175,000 to three lobbyists: Heckler, Gilmore, and Allen. Just three years after he voted against Sunset Valley’s water-quality interests, that community put Allen on its payroll. It sure is a white man’s world.
Heckler says the lobby is overrun with strange bedfellows because pragmatic relationships get things done. He says liberals learned to work with Allen on some issues because this longtime head of the Texas Conservative Forum is no ideologue.
Austin-based American Civil Liberties Union activist Scott Henson agreed. He says Democrats lorded over Texas’ last pork-barrel prison-building spree. As such, Allen’s 2003 takeover of the Corrections Committee presented the ACLU with an opportunity. Henson credited the new chair for quickly becoming an advocate of such “liberal” policies as promoting treatment over incarceration for first-time drug offenders. Henson was so impressed with Allen that he went to work for his campaign when Allen faced a strong Democratic challenge in 2004 (Allen prevailed with 53 percent of the vote).
Citing concerns that this story might be an Allen “hatchet job,” Heckler and Gilmore expressed reluctance to speak on the record about their clients or about Allen, who did not respond to two requests for comment. Heckler did say that he got to know Allen through his work with Family Forward, a nonprofit that promotes family-education programs. Heckler says Allen used to invite him to speak to the lawmaker’s Conservative Forum on how prison education lowers recidivism rates. Once again, Allen impressed a liberal with his pragmatism.
Pragmatism in policy and pragmatism in ethics are different things, however. The ethical clouds that have trailed Allen have little to do with whether he was right on a given policy. If Texans are going to run around with concealed weapons, for example, handgun-safety training is a laudable prerequisite. Yet Allen sold government short in 1995 by working on that legislation with one hand and opening his firearms academy with the other. Similarly, Allen and Gilmore sold government short when they left the House through its revolving door and quickly signed corrections-industry clients. This is true even when those clients advocate sound policies.
Consider California-based Bottom Line Utility Solutions, which advises clients on how to lower utility bills. Last year Bottom Line hired Heckler and Gilmore as it promoted legislation to require Texas prisons to install water-conservation devices (HB 2905). Approved by Allen and the six other members of the Corrections Committee, the bill passed the House too late in the session for Senate action. This year Bottom Line hired a third Texas lobbyist: Ray Allen.
Such revolving-door abuses undermine public faith in elected officials and government—a cost that is offset for Allen and Gilmore by the up to $100,000 that they will receive from Bottom Line this year. While Allen’s old legislative colleagues could crack down on revolving-door abuses, too many of them already are looking ahead to lucrative future lobbying careers of their own.
Few people oppose conserving water at prisons, least of all conservationist Tom “Smitty” Smith of Texas Public Citizen. But Smith says Allen and Gilmore fouled these waters by serving the Corrections Committee one day and corrections-industry clients the next. “We support a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can enter the lobby,” Smitty says. “Lawmakers who grease a corporation’s bottom line today should not have their own bottoms greased by that same corporation tomorrow.”
Andrew Wheat is research director of Texans for Public Justice.