Guest Column

By Peter Goodman

Las Cruces- NMSU hosted a panel discussion Wednesday on outside money spent to influence local elections. Is this a small example?

In 2014 two gentlemen from Louisiana (Glenn Hebert and Steve Afeman) contributed $2300 each to a candidate for Doña Ana County Sheriff.

Louisiana’s a good way off. Apparently, neither man had previously contributed to candidates in other states. Mr. Afeman is the CEO of Emerald Companies, a private prison outfit. Mr. Hebert is Emerald’s founder and board chairman. Each gave $5,000 to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in 2007. Governor Jindal has pushed hard for more private prisons.

Disclosure: I find private prisons unappealing; and the scandal where private managers of a prison for young offenders were found to have bribed Pennsylvania judges to give youthful offenders longer sentences was just what I’ve always feared from these outfits.

Why would Mr. Hebert and Mr. Afeman (who do run a private prison in Lincoln, New Mexico) take an interest in who’s sheriff in our little corner of the world.

In Doña Ana County, the sheriff doesn’t run the jail.

On the other hand, Sheriff Enrique Vigil, the beneficiary of their largesse, not only has been quite diligent in investigating allegations against the jailer, Chris Barela, but briefly took over the jail this year. Allegations against Barela did deserve a vigorous but fair investigation. County officials differ over whether the jail incident was legal or illegal. And over DASO’s motives. (I’m convinced that the actual DASO deputies involved in locking down the jail for awhile had no idea that Emerald had supplied $4,600 – upwards of 20% – of the total $21,274 donated to Vigil’s campaign during the general election.)

Coincidence? Maybe.

Emerald has run (or tried to get built) a lot of prisons, mostly in Texas and Louisiana.

Some local communities have been very unhappy with Emerald. There’s at least a suggestion that Emerald wasn’t fully candid with local citizens.

In one town, many citizens strongly opposed Emerald’s plans, but community political leaders kept on pushing those plans.

In Lake Providence, Emerald cut a deal with the lame-duck sheriff, and the incoming sheriff sued to get rid of Emerald. In mid-2012 authorities made a surprise search, found a great deal of contraband, and removed 350 prisoners – more than a third of the population there, apparently. Mr. Afeman reportedly said the search was a ploy by the sheriff to pressure Emerald, and shrugged, “You’re always going to find contraband in a prison.” Emerald is no longer running the prison there. “There’s not a lot of people here that like them,” one person told me.

One newspaper said Emerald “hustled” small towns: “Like the Music Man, they’d go into small, isolated, and impoverished counties and persuade local officials that an economic boom was just a detention center away. Local officials had only to pay to build the facility and pay them to operate it. Emerald . . . leaves behind . . . some business success but some bad feelings.” In La Salle County, commissioners reached an agreement with Emerald without much public involvement; but when the public realized the bonds “paid an outrageous 12-percent interest, underwriter fees were six percent, [and] Emerald would get a flat amount for operating the prison no matter how small the inmate population, . . . the public was not amused. Lawsuits ensued. It was too late to stop the bond fiasco” (See more here in Goodman’s updated blog post).

Emerald left. The local government couldn’t.

Our concern is Kiki. Was his conduct tied to these donations? Don’t know. He hasn’t returned my several phone calls.

 

The column above originally appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News, Sunday, 27 March, 2016. There is also some expanded reading from this article on Peter Goodman’s blog, Views from Soledad Canyon.

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