Regents accused of conflict of interest

PHOENIX -- A local civil rights leader is accusing two members of the state Board of Regents of having an illegal conflict of interest because they serve on the board of a company that builds private prisons for the state.

Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP, contends it is improper for Dennis DeConcini and Anne Mariucci to be regents when are board members of Corrections Corporation of America. That company last year was awarded a contract last year to house 1,000 medium-security inmates for the state.

The formal complaint, filed with the Attorney General's Office, said that, at the very least, both should have declared that conflict. Attorney Dianne Post said that failure violates state law.

But Tillman said the issue is deeper.

He said both are involved in working to have the state put more and more money into putting people behind bars. The result, he said, has been less money for higher education.

"You're out here fighting and lobbying for more prisons and less for education,' he charged.

As proof CCA and the universities are fighting for the same funds, the complaint says that since 1979 higher education's share of the state budget fell from 19.1 percent to 8 percent. At the same time, the amount spent on corrections went from 4.3 percent to 11 percent.

Tillman acknowledged that shift in priorities was approved not by the regents but ultimately the Legislature. He argued, though, some of that could be traced to money.

"You're going around the back door, giving legislators money for prisons,' he said. "I don't know too many people that are giving legislators money to help them get more money for the schools and the colleges.'

That contract approved last year will pay CCA $65.43 a day for each of the 1,000 inmates once the facility is eventually built and open. That potentially makes it worth nearly $23.9 million a year.

DeConcini did not respond to requests for a comment. But Mariucci told Capitol Media Services that attorneys for the Regents have looked at prior complaints about a potential conflict and concluded they are " completely frivolous.'

"In fact, I would go further to say that privatizing prisons and defraying the capital costs away from the state that the private sector can provide in a private prison contract creates more money for education,' she said. "I look at it as the opposite of a conflict wherein it's mutually complementary and it's a win-win for both industries.'

Post, in her formal complaint, does not see it that way.

More money for incarceration means less money for education,' she wrote.

"It is not an appearance of conflict; it is a direct conflict,' Post continued. "DeConcini and Mariucci cannot serve two masters.'

She said fewer state dollars for higher education means a larger burden on students and their families.

"Students are increasingly forced to borrow more money for school, saddling them with debt when they are just beginning their careers' she wrote. What's worse, Post said, is this shift comes "at a time when the economy is barely beginning to recover and unemployment rates are still quite high.'

Regents spokeswoman Sarah Harper said in a prepared statement the board "takes seriously' the complaint. But she said staff council has reviewed the issue and determined there is no conflict of interest.

"Both Regents Mariucci and DeConcini serve tirelessly to support higher education in Arizona to ensure affordable access for all Arizonans and the Board appreciates their dedicated service,' the statement reads.

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