An advocate for--and against--freedom of information
Charles Overby has a foot planted firmly in two very different worlds. In one, he is a champion of the free press. In the other, he is part of a group at the helm of a corporation that has worked hard to limit freedom of information and the ability of the press to inform the public.
In one world, Overby is chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, a foundation created by former USA Today publisher Al Neuharth, and its Newseum—located on Pennsylvania Avenue, blocks from the Smithsonian and the Capitol, and which literally has the First Amendment etched onto its 75-foot marble edifice. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and reporter, former vice president of news and communications for Gannett, the largest U.S. newspaper chain, and former management committee member of both Gannett and its flagship paper USA Today.
What Overby’s Freedom Forum biography does not disclose is that since 2001, he’s been a director of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
This omission is easy to understand when you juxtapose the Freedom Forum’s guiding principles—“free speech, free press and free spirit”—against CCA’s recent actions and attitudes toward the press and freedom of information.
CCA, the nation’s largest private jailer (holding more than 70,000 prisoners in over 60 facilities, and taking in $1.6 billion in revenue for 2008), spent millions of dollars from 2007 to 2009 successfully lobbying against two bills: the Public Safety Act of 2007 (which would outlaw private prisons) and the Private Prison Information Act of 2007. As no hearing was ever held on the Public Safety Act, it’s likely that the bulk of these resources went to suppress the PPIA.
As introduced to the 110th Congress by Rep. Tim Holden (D.-Pa.), the PPIA would bring privately owned and operated prisons contracting with the federal government under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In June 2008, Holden alluded to the amount of adverse pressure facing the bill in his testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security:
In recent weeks, opposition to this bill has mobilized. Although I cannot testify on their behalf, I can reiterate my concern that opposition to this bill is opposition to reporting transparency….As you will hear, repeated attempts to ascertain information from these institutions have been rejected, if not ignored completely…. Roughly 25,000 federal criminal prisoners are jailed in private facilities at any given time. Yet private prisons are not required to publicly disclose information about their facilities’ daily operations…. Without strong FOIA requirements, we cannot assure whistleblowers are able to come forth and gather evidence they need to support any claims; we cannot assure public safety is paramount if the information provided is not on-par with the information provided from our public state and federal institutions.
Holden went on to relate the findings of the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, made up of members of the Ohio General Assembly, which conducted a surprise inspection of the CCA-owned Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in 2006. The facility, which CCA bills as “low security,” is under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The committee found that there had been 44 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults at the facility between June 2005 and May 2006; by comparison, there were 305 recorded assaults in all of Ohio’s 32 correctional facilities during 2005. When members of the media inquired about the severity of the assaults and what subsequent actions had been taken by prison administrators, they received no reply.
The PPIA died before the subcommittee with the expiration of the 110th Congress, no vote being taken on it. “Our information was that lobbying by or on behalf of the privates had killed it,” said Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News and vice president of the Private Corrections Institute. Friedmann had testified before the subcommittee on behalf of the bill.
The only witness to testify before the subcommittee against the bill was Michael Flynn, director of government affairs for the Reason Foundation (publisher of Reason magazine)—which has received funding from the private prison industry, including CCA.
Overby declined to comment on his involvement with CCA and the corporation’s efforts to curtail freedom of information. Nor did Overby have any comment the only other time his connection to CCA has been publicly raised, by former USA Today reporter Jim Hopkins’ Gannett Blog (4/14/08).
As a CCA director, Overby is also a shareholder in the corporation. According to Security and Exchange Commission records, he was awarded stock options for 26,918 shares in 2008 and 2009 under the corporation’s incentive plan, simply for being reelected to the board. According to Forbes.com, Overby received a total of $198,610 in compensation as a CCA director in 2008.
Throughout the pitched battle between CCA and the press over PPIA, Overby remained silent, never weighing in to defend the assertions of media representatives and lawmakers that public inquiry into federally contacted private prisons should be backed by the FOIA.
From 2007 to 2009, CCA employed five sets of lobbyists assigned to several federal issues, including the PPIA. However, none of these groups—which had budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—approached the monetary or professional clout of the corporation’s A-list lobby assigned to the PPIA.
This team was composed of Overby’s colleagues at CCA—executives such as CEO Damon Hininger, general counsel Gus Puryear, former Bureau of Prisons director and CCA senior vice president Michael Quinlan, and vice president of federal and local customer relations Bart Verhulst. These executive-level lobbyists expended $3.45 million lobbying against the Public Safety Act and the Private Prison Information Act over the course of 2007 and 2008.
While Overby is not registered as a lobbyist along with other CCA top brass, he has paid $35,000 into the CCA political action committee from 2003 to date—$10,000 of which was donated in 2007-08. During this period, the PAC gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to House crime subcommittee members Zoe Lofgren and Dan Lungren, and to Judiciary chair John Conyers—none of whom had benefited from the PAC prior to the introduction of the PPIA in 2007.
Peter Sussman is a co-author of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee. While pointing out that he was not speaking for the SPJ, and that he had no prior knowledge of Overby’s involvement with CCA, Sussman called this “dual allegiance” troubling:
He said that this conflict of interest is especially egregious, as the press is only seeking access to institutions carrying out a function which has traditionally been one of the core responsibilities of the government:
Last May, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee reintroduced the bill as the Private Prison Information Act of 2009, citing concerns that the private prison industry, along with the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee, may be fabricating reports concerning immigrant detainee populations in order to gain additional funding and influence immigration policy. From the bill’s reintroduction through October, CCA has spent $540,000 on three sets of lobbyists with a stated interest in the PPIA.
Freedom Forum’s Peculiar Priorities
While the Freedom Forum’s mission statement declares that it is a “nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people,” it is unclear how it actually works to achieve these goals.
The Forum, a tax-exempt organization that reported assets in excess of $1 billion at the end of 2007, funds three primary projects: the Newseum, the First Amendment Center and the Diversity Institute. The Forum does not engage in litigation or file amicus briefs on behalf of litigants, as do many other high-profile First Amendment champions, such as the ACLU. Instead, the Forum’s focus lies in education, and its main vehicle is the Newseum. In its new location across the street from the National Mall, the Newseum attracted more than 700,000 visitors in its first year.
The museum, which has been home to both Ted Kaczynski’s cabin and Tim Russert’s desk, is also home to the News History Gallery and the Great Hall of News—paid for through $10 million grants from News Corp and the New York Times, respectively. It even houses its own Ethics Center, where visitors can test their ethical acumen through interactive kiosks.
The Newseum building, which occupies 643,000 square feet of prime D.C. property—purchased by the Forum for $100 million in 2000—is also home to 135 luxury apartments.
To be sure, the Freedom Forum does benefit other journalistic endeavors. According to tax filings from 2007, the most recent available, the Forum gave $6,000 to the International Press Institute, $5,000 to the International Women’s Media Foundation, $30,000 to the Inter-American Press Association and $32,000 to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans (on whose board Forum CEO Charles Overby also sits), among others.
The Forum gave Overby $482,000 in wages and benefits in 2007, with another $95,000 in expenses. Freedom Forum’s founder and current senior advisory chair, retired Gannett CEO and USA Today founder Allen Neuharth, also drew $225,000 in compensation, plus an additional $200,545 in expenses from the Forum in 2007.
Then there are the many non sequitur charitable contributions: $5,000 to the United States Equestrian Team, Inc., $5,000 to the National Organization for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, $10,000 to the Basilian Fathers Missions, $10,000 to the United Way of Brevard County (Florida), Inc., and so on. (For more examples of Freedom Forum’s peculiar priorities, see Gannett Blog, 12/30/08.)
However, the forum’s greatest single beneficiary in recent years—outside of internal causes such as the Newseum—is the University of Mississippi, which received $5 million from the Forum toward the construction of the $7.5 million Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.