Virginia representative blocks Illinois sale of Thompson prison to feds
SPRINGFIELD -- The federal government wants to buy a prison. The state of Illinois has one to sell. Problem solved, right?
Before the federal Bureau of Prisons can buy the state's vacant Thomson penitentiary, it needs permission from Congress to shuffle some money around within its budget. But Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who chairs a key subcommittee, refuses to sign off, saying the change would amount to an improper earmark of money for a particular project.
Illinois politicians of both parties are steamed by Wolf's opposition to a deal that could create 1,100 jobs in northwestern Illinois, put $165 million in the state's empty treasury and help ease overcrowding in federal prisons.
"Partisan politics and the personal feelings of one congressman from Virginia, Republican Frank Wolf, shouldn't be able to stand in the way of a project that is important to our nation's prison system and our local economy," Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, said in one of several recent statements about the impasse.
Wolf admits mistrust of the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder contribute to his opposition. Still, he says it would be improper to approve the project even if he wanted to.
"I cannot approve an earmark, no matter its merits, under the current House rules," Wolf said in a letter to Durbin earlier this month.
Here's a closer look at the arguments on both sides:
The Justice Department maintains a list of earmark requests it receives, and Wolf points out that it includes Durbin's letter asking for money to buy Thomson. He also notes the budget proposed by President Barack Obama didn't include money for Thomson prison or any other new federal prison.
An added project, a legislative request, inclusion on a list of earmarks -- to Wolf, it adds up to an improper earmark. He also says the $165 million request is far larger than the budget shifts his subcommittee normally approves.
Budget experts aren't convinced.
Buying Thomson isn't something being forced on an agency or added to the budget, they point out. The Bureau of Prisons has been trying to arrange it for years, and the money would come from within current spending levels.
"It's a bit of a stretch to say this is an earmark ... but given how unpopular earmarks are, it's smart politics," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group. "That's probably not a legitimate reason to block moving the funds."
But Allison and Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, agreed that the fact that money for the prison wasn't included in the president's original budget does raise questions about how urgent the purchase really is. Wolf's arguments "are not without some merit," Ellis said.
Wolf doesn't make any secret of his mistrust of the president and the attorney general. He and others fear the administration, despite denials under oath and restrictions in U.S. law, would try to bring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to Thomson or some other prison.
Wolf offers a long list of reasons to be suspicious. But he seems most incensed by the administration's efforts in 2009 to release two Guantanamo detainees who were members of China's Uyghur ethnic group and received military training in Afghanistan. The United States eventually determined they weren't a threat and wanted to place them in a Uyghur community in Wolf's Virginia district. The idea was dropped when word leaked and triggered fierce opposition in Congress.
"Frankly, I do not have any confidence that the department or the administration will enforce the law forbidding the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States," Wolf wrote to Durbin.
Durbin responded that Wolf's "litany of grievances" demonstrates that "unfortunately for the people of Illinois who need these jobs, the involvement of the Attorney General in this request obscures your ability to see this issue on its merits."
Wolf's chief of staff, Dan Scandling, claimed Durbin is highlighting the Thomson issue now as a political move against freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, a Republican running in territory that includes the prison.
"Why do you think this is being ginned up just before the election?" Scandling asked in an interview with The Associated Press.
Durbin is a longtime friend of the Democratic candidate, Cheri Bustos, who says Thomson shows Schilling is ineffectual. "I wouldn't allow a Virginia congressman to stand in my way or in the way of good jobs for Illinois," Bustos said in a recent tweet.
Durbin's office denies any political motivation, noting he's been trying to arrange the sale for years.
Republicans were the first to raise the Thomson issue in this election year. Schilling told reporters in May that he was working to get the sale approved. He and Rep. Don Manzullo, a Rockford-area Republican, sent a letter May 25 asking the Justice Department to move money around to make the sale possible -- the same kind of request Durbin filed in July.
Thomson isn't the only prison in federal limbo. Prisons in four other states are awaiting money to finish construction and start accepting inmates. Senators and representatives from those states join Wolf in opposing the push to put Thomson at the top of the funding list.
The federal Bureau of Prisons says building a new prison instead of buying Thomson would cost about $400 million and take at least three years.
Illinois built the state-of-the-art prison near the little town of Thomson back in 2001. But the state's deteriorating budget situation meant there was never enough money to run the prison once it was built. It has gone largely unused for more than a decade.
At the same time, federal prisons are overflowing, housing 49 percent more inmates than they were designed to hold, the bureau said.
The Bureau of Prisons first proposed buying the Thomson prison late in 2009. At the time, the proposal included using some of the prison for terrorism suspects who would be transferred from Guantanamo Bay, but that idea was dropped after a huge national outcry.