Former Gannett executive Charles Overby is a man of puzzling contradictions. As the high-profile chairman and CEO of the billion-dollar Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., Overby says on the non-profit foundation's website that the First Amendment keeps Americans free: "It guarantees free speech, free press, religious freedom and the rights of assembly and petition. But it is under frequent attack and needs help."
Yet, as a moonlighting director of a for-profit prison operator, public documents show, Overby has contributed $25,000 to the company's political action committee -- a PAC I've been told is fighting congressional legislation that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. Sound strange? Stick with me; I don't think any of this has been widely disclosed before now.
The prison company is Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tenn. The legislation is the Private Prison Information Act of 2007, filed in the House and the Senate; Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman is the Senate's sponsor. The bill would force Corrections Corp. and other private prison operators to make the same information available to the public that federal government-run prisons are required to do under the Freedom of Information Act.
Overby's $25,000 in contributions in 2003-07 are barely a rounding error in Corrections Corp.'s lobbying operation. Last year alone, the 25-year-old government contractor spent nearly $2.5 million to cozy up to federal lawmakers and agencies, public documents show.
But foundations are public trusts for the common good; we expect their leaders to be squeaky clean when it comes to appearances. Why is Overby working at a for-profit prison operator with a vested interest in a restrained Freedom of Information Act? I wanted to chat with him about that, and other related questions. But the foundation has not responded to any of my messages for more than a week now. (Overby and other officials have been busy celebrating the foundation's Friday opening of its new $450-million Newseum in Washington.) Corrections Corp. also didn't respond to my messages.
Overby and the company may, indeed, support the Private Prison Information Act, although few businesses favor regulations forcing them to open operations to public inspection; CCA's lobbying disclosure reports don't say what position the company has taken. It's also possible Overby hasn't followed the company's PAC activities during the six years he's been a director. That seems unlikely, given his political pedigree. Overby, 61, is a former aide to the late Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and to former Gov. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now in the U.S. Senate. Plus, two of Overby's fellow Freedom Forum trustees are retired Senate majority leaders Howard Baker of Tennessee and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Why jailhouse documents matter
I used them in 1998 at The Courier-Journal to show that nearly 90% of 350 county jail guards in Louisville, Ky., had been disciplined for violating rules -- including beating inmates. In Boise at the Idaho Statesman, I reported in 1996 that a convicted killer sent to state prison was instead wandering around, largely unguarded, in a small northern Idaho town. The result: He and dozens of other felons were returned to the state pen.
Access to such public documents is threatened by the growth of companies, including Corrections Corp., that want to privatize more federal, state and local prisons -- further walling off operations from public view. When he offered his bill, Lieberman said: "This legislation is intended to break down the wall of secrecy surrounding private prisons so that they can be held accountable to the public."
Last year, public documents show, Corrections Corp. lobbied on privatization of Bureau of Indian Affairs prisons and on the Public Safety Act, which would outlaw private prisons, as well as the Private Prison Information Act.
Overby has been Freedom Forum's top executive since 1989. At Gannett, he was editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Corporate's vice president for news and communications. He also served on the management committees of Gannett and USA Today. He's been a Corrections Corp. board member since December 2001, a seat that doesn't appear in his online Freedom Forum bio.
Assets were once controlled by Gannett
Corrections Corp. paid Overby $165,000 in director's fees and stock awards in 2006, the most recent regulatory filings show. That was on top of the $443,705 in salary and benefits Freedom Forum paid him as chairman and CEO that year, plus an $83,248 expense account, the foundation's most recent public tax return shows.
Freedom Forum has around $1 billion in assets, giving it the power to spend millions annually on its three priorities: the Newseum, advancing the First Amendment, and promoting newsroom diversity. Gannett originally controlled those assets, when they were held by the company's original Gannett Foundation charitable arm. Several Freedom Forum trustees and well-paid top managers are former senior GCI executives. Many of us who devoted decades to Gannett maintain a proprietary interest in how Freedom Forum spends that money.
There's reason to wonder. The foundation has a well-documented history of questionable spending. The Newseum cost nearly twice to build as originally forecast. And Overby isn't the only one pulling down six-figure paychecks. Freedom Forum Founder Al Neuharth, 84, got paid $225,000 in 2006, plus enjoyed a $200,545 expense account. Foundation officials have not explained what Neuharth did for that money -- 10 days after I first asked for details.
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