Emails Reveal Cozy Relationship Between Mesa Officials, Private Jail Firm's Employees
The proposal to privatize Mesa's jail services has met with widespread opposition.
When the Mesa City Council voted in May to become the first city in Arizona to privatize its jail operations, it was over the objections of numerous residents. Many questioned the wisdom of handing people charged with misdemeanors over to a company that's arguably best known for facing allegations of sexual violence and inmate abuse.
Newly released emails provided in response to an ACLU of Arizona public records request, which was mirrored by Phoenix New Times, shed some light on what went on behind the scenes. Namely, the emails highlight the cozy relationship between CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America or CCA, and Mesa city officials.
While details of the contract were being negotiated, Mesa's deputy city manager made plans to grab beers with a CoreCivic lobbyist. Another city official suggested that "we should all have a party and celebrate" once the contract was finalized.
And at least one former Mesa Police Department employee has landed a job with CoreCivic in the past year.
According to his LinkedIn page, Jerry Quarles, a 27-year veteran of the Mesa Police Department, left in November 2016 to join CoreCivic. He now works in an administrative role at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence.
In March, Quarles invited two of his former colleagues from the crime-prevention division to tour his new workplace.
"It took pulling a lot of strings, but I was able to get both of you approved for a facility tour of CoreCivic CAFCC-West US Marshals Detention Center if you are interested in seeing where I work and what the environment is like," he wrote.
"Thank you so much!!" officer Patty Gallagher wrote back a little over an hour later. "What a great educational opportunity! I will get with Lindy [Marino] and maybe we can come on a Friday this month! We'll coordinate our schedules and get back to you as soon as possible. I really appreciate you doing this for us!"
According to Mesa Police Department spokesman Steve Berry, the tour did not constitute official city business.
"They went on their own time, own dime," he said. "It was simply old friends going to see a new friend's workplace."
Meanwhile, around the same time, Sharon Brause, Mesa's senior procurement officer, got in touch with Michelle Barker, CoreCivic's senior director for proposal development, to let her know that the city wanted to move forward and finalize a contract.
"We're meeting with City Council on Thursday so I believe now this is being fast tracked," she wrote on March 13, before following up with a request — could the standard contract language be tweaked so that the city of Mesa wasn't responsible for any expenses related to preparation and delivery of the body if an inmate were to die in CoreCivic's custody?
The next morning, she followed up again. "The Chief is wanting to get started asap — possibly even April 1st if that's an option — so if there's a way you can let me know by late tomorrow, that would be wonderful," she wrote. "He wants to know how soon you folks could be up and running."
Barker wrote back a few minutes later: "To clarify, does the Chief want the contract in place by April 1st or to start transferring offenders on April 1st?"
Brause responded, "Here are my marching orders as of last night: Contact CCA regarding the contract and advise them of the situations and confirm a few facts. Are they ready to proceed? How long would they need before this could potentially go operational? Let me see if I can pin him down a little more and I'll get back with you."
Later that day, Barker replied, "Yes, CoreCivic is ready to proceed with a contract with the City of Mesa to house a sentenced misdemeanant population and we are very excited that the City is ready to move forward!"
CoreCivic "should be able to finalize the contract quickly and begin transferring the populations on April 1st," Barker also added.
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That didn't end up happening — by April, the details of the contract were still being finalized.
"Here you go — hopefully for a final time," Brause wrote to Barker on April 27th. "Please review and get back to me as soon as you folks can so we can get this on the next available agenda (so we can start 6/1/17). THEN I think we should all have a party and celebrate :)"
Brause tells Phoenix New Times that her comment about having a party wasn't meant to be taken literally.
"I was just being facetious, I guess, if that's the word you want to use," she says. "This has been a long-term project and it's been sitting on my desk since I got here five years ago. It was just one of those things where I probably shouldn't have said it, but I was very glad to be done with this project whether it was approved or not."
Deputy City Manager Scott Butler appears to have maintained a friendly relationship with one of CoreCivic's lobbyists. Email records indicate that he invited Will Barnow, who's registered to represent CoreCivic at the state capitol, to "grab a cup of coffee and catch up" in March, while the contract was being negotiated.
After the two met up, Barnow wrote to Butler to say that he would "look forward to grabbing a beer soon."
A few minutes later, Butler replied, "Great to see you too! Let's definitely grab that beer in a few weeks. Remind me, what part of town do you live in? I am in Central PHX, so I'm very flexible on location." They later made plans to get happy hour drinks on May 10, less than two weeks before the city council's vote.
Attempts to reach Butler were unsuccessful; his email auto-response indicated that he would be out of the office until Wednesday. This story will be updated when he responds.
CoreCivic and the City of Mesa also appear to have collaborated on a media strategy. In March, after the city's plan to privatize jail operations became public, Arizona Republic reporter Jessica Boehm contacted CoreCivic to seek comment.
"Per our discussion, we will direct Ms. Boehm to the City of Mesa," Barnow wrote to Butler at the time.
A little over a month later, Mesa Police Department spokesman Nik Rasheta wrote to a CoreCivic rep to ask if he could provide "some literature or information that may be useful to us in the near future." Shortly after, he received an email telling him to expect a phone call from Jonathan Burns, the company's director of public affairs.
Meanwhile, as activists were encouraging Mesa residents to call their council members and express their opposition, city officials were treating the proposal to privatize the city's jail as a done deal.
"As you're aware, the above contract is being recommended for award to your firm," procurement specialist Cyndi Gonzalez wrote in an email to CoreCivic a week before the final vote. "It is anticipated that the award will be approved by the Mesa City Council on Monday evening, May 22nd."
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