DORAL, Fla. — In recent years, the private prison company GEO Group has held its annual leadership conference at venues near its Boca Raton headquarters. But this year, the company moved its gathering to a Miami-area golf resort owned by President Trump.
The event last week, during which executives and wardens gathered for four days of meetings, dinner receptions and golf outings at the luxurious 800-acre Trump National Doral, followed an intense effort by GEO Group to align itself with the president and his administration.
During last year’s election, a company subsidiary gave $225,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. GEO gave an additional $250,000 to the president’s inaugural committee. It also hired as outside lobbyists a major Trump fundraiser and two former aides to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of the president’s most prominent campaign backers.
GEO Group, meanwhile, has had newfound success in Trump’s Washington.
The company secured the administration’s first contract for an immigration detention center, a deal worth tens of millions a year. And its stock price has tripled since hitting a low last year when the Obama administration sought to phase out the use of private prisons — a decision that Sessions reversed.
GEO Group’s achievements over the past year show how a company that has long relied heavily on doing business with the government — and whose business model was under threat — is thriving in the Trump era.
Even as the president has targeted lobbyists and Washington special interests with his vow to “drain the swamp,” GEO Group has regained its footing while escalating its spending on traditional tactics such as lobbying and campaign donations. The Doral event represents a potential avenue of influence that is unique to Trump: the chance for a corporation to engage in a private business transaction with the president.
“It is the opposite of draining the swamp,” said Carl Takei, a senior staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
GEO Group did not answer questions from The Washington Post about its stepped-up political activity, nor would the company say when it booked the Doral conference or how much it paid the president’s resort.
The Post was able to identify only one other event that GEO had at Doral in recent years: a shareholder meeting in 2007, about five years before Trump purchased the property.
“Over the years, we have held company and employee meetings at a variety of venues around the country, and as a Florida-based company, we have held meetings throughout the state, including at Doral,” GEO Group said in a statement.
The company also sought to play down its influence in shaping the administration’s agenda. “We do not take a position on, or advocate for or against, criminal justice, sentencing, immigration enforcement or detention policies,” the statement said. “Our political and lobbying activities focus on promoting the benefits of public-private partnerships.”
A White House official said the administration had no knowledge of the Doral event. The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.
[Trump’s divisive presidency reshapes a key part of his private business]
GEO Group, which owns or manages about 140 prisons, immigration-detention centers and other facilities nationwide and derives nearly half of its revenue from federal contracts, entered the Trump era with a great deal at stake. In the past 10 years, the federal government has paid GEO Group and its subsidiaries more than $4 billion, according to federal contracting records.
The company suffered a setback when, in the summer of 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates ordered the Justice Department to phase out its use of private prisons. Yates's move came after a Justice Department inspector general's report called the facilities less secure than those run by the government.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons slashed thousands of beds from potential prison deals that were up for a federal award.
In a statement to The Post, GEO criticized the inspector general’s findings and said the data shows that “privately run facilities are at least as equally safe, secure, and humane as publicly run facilities.”
Alex Friedmann, who is an associate director with the Human Rights Defense Center, a prisoner advocacy group, and an activist shareholder in GEO Group, said the company has worked to amass political influence because public contracts are its lifeblood.
“They have to lobby and curry political favor because that’s what their business model is based on,” he said.
In the 2016 election cycle, GEO stepped up its contributions, with its employee-financed political action committee giving federal candidates, PACs and parties about $732,000 — more than four times as much as in the previous presidential cycle, according to federal filings. Of the amount contributed directly to congressional candidates in the last cycle, 87 percent went to Republicans, according to a breakdown by the Center for Responsive Politics.
GEO’s chief rival in the private prison industry, Nashville-based CoreCivic, gave less than half as much in corporate PAC donations in the 2016 cycle, and the company says it has never held an event at a Trump property.
Jonathan Burns, a spokesman for CoreCivic, declined to specifically comment on GEO Group’s activities but said that his company’s history “clearly shows that we engage with individuals from across the political spectrum and at all levels of government.”
Early in the presidential race, Trump made clear that he supported the use of private prisons. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better,” he said during a televised town hall gathering in March 2016.
His Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, had the opposite view, saying in a September debate, “You shouldn’t have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans.”
A subsidiary of GEO Group contributed $225,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now — including $125,000 about a week before the election, according to campaign finance reports.
The watchdog group Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the contributions, arguing that they violated a long-standing ban on donations by federal contractors.
GEO has said that because its subsidiary, GEO Corrections Holdings, made the donation, the ban does not apply. The complaint is pending before the FEC.
GEO has brought on new lobbyists in the past year, hiring two former Sessions aides, David Stewart and Ryan Robichaux, as well as Brian Ballard, who represented the Trump Organization in Florida and raised money for his campaign.
Stewart and Robichaux did not respond to requests for comment. Ballard told The Post that he is unable to comment on matters concerning his clients.
George Zoley, GEO Group’s founder and chief executive, is a prominent Republican donor in Florida.
Lanny Davis, a Washington consultant who previously represented GEO Group, said the company’s donations and lobbying were not aimed at bolstering its influence over policymakers. Rather, Davis said, Zoley is simply “a Republican and he liked Trump.”
A month into the Trump administration, Sessions issued a memo reversing Yates's decision. He said the phaseout plan impaired the Bureau of Prisons' "ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system."
Sessions had in the past voiced support for the use of contract facilities, saying in a 2010 congressional hearing that he believed "there is a role for private prisons in the American system."
GEO Group did not answer questions about whether it lobbied Sessions to reverse the policy.
The company has already secured significant business with the federal government this year.
In April, it won the Trump administration’s first immigration detention contract, a 10-year deal first proposed during President Barack Obama’s term to build and run a 1,000-bed facility in Conroe, Tex. GEO has said the project is expected to generate $44 million a year.
The company also has renewed contracts for Bureau of Prisons facilities such as the Big Spring complex in Texas, where GEO has said it expects about $664 million in combined revenue over a 10-year term.
Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said the Bureau of Prisons requires a competitive-bidding process for its contract awards and “does not give preference to any company or organization.”
Zoley, who did not respond to requests for comment, told investment analysts in August that the company thinks “there are a number of significant opportunities to deploy our assets over the next year.” He added, “We remain optimistic about the demand for our diversified services and our continued growth potential.”
In bringing its annual conference last week to Doral, GEO was doing business with one of the signature properties in Trump’s real estate empire.
Although Trump no longer manages his private company, ethics experts have said his decision to retain ownership has created the potential for corporations and other interests with business before the federal government to gain influence by bolstering the president’s personal fortune.
The golf resort, which Trump bought in 2012 and extensively renovated, is the single biggest contributor to Trump's cash flow, according to Trump's June financial disclosure filing, generating $116 million in revenue between January 2016 and March 2017.
Large events can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the resort. The Republican Governors Association, which held a donor summit at Doral this spring, paid the resort more than $408,000 for its two-day event, tax filings show. A spokesman said the event was planned in early 2015.
The same week of the GEO meeting, Doral hosted events by two other large companies — L3 Technologies and Siemens Healthineers — that have major government contracts. An L3 spokeswoman said the event was unrelated to the current administration, while Siemens did not respond to requests for comment.
One evening during GEO’s conference, dozens of wardens and executives were shuttled by charter bus to a nearby Latin bar for a performance by Zoley, who plays guitar in a rock band.
Just past 9:30 p.m., scores of GEO employees who were packed into the bar’s patio began cheering as the band launched into a cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Harwell reported from Washington. Anu Narayanswamy, Matt Zapotosky, Jack Gillum and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.