Scrutiny for a Bush Judicial Nominee

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The Otay Mesa, California detention center is managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), based in Nashville, Tennasee.

As the top lawyer for America's biggest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Gus Puryear IV is known to sport well-pressed preppy pink shirts, and his brownish mop of hair stands out among most of President Bush's graying nominees to the federal bench. A favorite of G.O.P. hard-liners, Puryear, 39, prepped Dick Cheney for the vice presidential debates — both in 2000 and 2004 — and served as a senior aide to two former Senators and onetime presidential hopefuls, Bill Frist and Fred Thompson.

Political connections, though, may not be enough to get Puryear a lifetime post as a federal district judge in Tennessee. Puryear recently confronted tough questions about his conduct, experience and potential conflicts of interest from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve him before a full Senate vote. Now, a former CCA manager tells TIME that Puryear oversaw a reporting system in which accounts of major, sometimes violent prison disturbances and other significant events were often masked or minimized in accounts provided to government agencies with oversight over prison contracts. Ronald T. Jones, the former CCA manager, alleges that the company even began keeping two sets of books — one for internal use that described prison deficiencies in telling detail, and a second set that Jones describes as "doctored" for public consumption, to limit bad publicity, litigation or fines that could derail CCA's multimillion-dollar contracts with federal, state or local agencies.

CCA owns or operates 65 prisons, housing some 70,000 inmates across the U.S. According to the company's website, it has a greater than 50% share of the booming private prison market. CCA is also a major contributor to Republican candidates and causes, and spends millions of dollars each year lobbying for government contracts. (Puryear enjoys a friendship with Cheney's son-in-law, Philip Perry, who lobbied for CCA in Washington before serving as general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, which has millions of dollars in contracts with CCA, from 2005 to 2007.) The company has likewise given financial support to tax-exempt policy groups that support tough sentencing laws that help put more people behind bars. Like other prison companies, CCA has faced numerous lawsuits that stem from allegedly inadequate staff levels that can be a cause of high levels of violence in the prisons. Though hundreds of such lawsuits are often pending at any given time, many brought by inmates in its own facilities, CCA under Puryear has mounted an especially vigorous defense against them, refusing to settle all but the most damaging.

Jones knows CCA intimately. Until last summer, the longtime Republican was in charge of "quality assurance" records for CCA prisons across the U.S. He says that in 2005, after CCA found itself embarrassed on several occasions by the public release of internal records to government agencies, Puryear mandated that detailed, raw reports on prison shortcomings carry a blanket assertion of "attorney-client privilege," thus forbidding their release without his written consent. From then on, Jones says, the audits delivered to agencies were filled with increasingly vague performance measures. "If the wrong party found out that a facility's operations scored low in an audit, then CCA could be subject to litigation, fines or worse," explains Jones. "When Mr. Puryear felt there was highly sensitive or potentially damaging information to CCA, I would then be directed to remove that information from an audit report." Puryear would not comment on the allegations. Jones resigned from CCA last summer to pursue a legal career.

According to Jones, Puryear was most concerned about what CCA described as "zero tolerance" events, or ZT's — including unnatural deaths, major disturbances, escapes and sexual assaults. According to Jones, bonuses and job security at the company were tied to reporting low ZT numbers. Low numbers also pleased CCA's government clients, as well as the company's board, which received a regular tally, and Wall Street analysts concerned about potentially costly lawsuits that CCA might face.

In 2006, for example, Jones says CCA had to lock down a prison in Texas to control rioting by as many as 60 inmates. Despite clear internal guidelines defining the incident as a ZT, Jones says he was ordered not to label it that way. Instead it was logged as, "Altered facility schedule due to inmate action". And this was not unusual, says Jones: "Information was misrepresented in a very disturbing way concerning the company's most important performance indicators, which included escapes, suicides, violent outbreaks and sexual assaults."

Companies often try to show their best face to customers, and safeguard internal records with "attorney-client privilege." But according to Stephen Gillers, a leading expert on legal ethics at New York University, CCA's use of that privilege seems like "a wholesale, possibly overreaching claim," similiar to the blanket assertions of major tobacco companies that tried to keep damaging internal documents from public view. Those assertions of privilege have been rejected by federal judges as an attempt to improperly conceal their internal data on the dangers of smoking from customers, the courts and legal adversaries. CCA could also be in legal trouble if it minimized the tally of serious prison incidents and, by implication, its possible financial liability. As chief legal counsel, Puryear would have also had an obligation to ensure his board had all the information it needed, good or bad, to make decisions. If Puryear's reporting system had the effect of withholding information relevant to official prison oversight, that could bear on his suitability as a federal judge by suggesting his "disdain for the proper operation of an important function of government," notes Gillers.

Contacted by TIME, CCA says that Puryear, "has served the company well and honorably as general counsel and will be an outstanding judge." The company denies allegations that it keeps two sets of books, saying: "A final audit report is made available to our customers. Appropriate information gathered in the audits is separately provided to our legal department." The company adds that "CCA has produced all relevant, non-privileged documents in litigation," that its board is regularly apprised of the most serious prison incidents, and that "all appropriate" information is given to the financial community.

President Bush recently called Puryear and his 27 other judicial nominees facing Senate confirmation "highly qualified." Whether or not the Senate agrees on Puryear, Bush is likely to leave the White House with fewer judges approved than Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, both two-term chief executives.