DALLAS - Indictments of Vice President Dick Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and other public officials represent the latest in a series of unusual episodes in an impoverished South Texas county nicknamed Prisonville.
Through the issuance of $141 million of revenue bonds since 2002, Willacy County has made incarceration its major industry, supplanting onion farming. The construction of the private prisons has made the county a hub for detentions by the Department of Homeland Security.
As of yesterday, the indictments had not yet been signed by a judge, a legal requirement before they become official.
The indictments handed down Tuesday by the Willacy County grand jury reportedly accuse Cheney of illegally profiting from his investments in the prisons through mutual fund manager Vanguard Group and using his position to increase payment for housing federal inmates, held for the Department of Homeland Security.
A Cheney spokeswoman declined to comment on the indictment, saying that the vice president had not yet received a copy.
Gonzales is accused of using his position while in office to stop an investigation in 2006 into abuses at one of the privately-run prisons. In a written statement, Gonzales' attorney, George Terwilliger 3d, called the charge "bogus" and said he hoped Texas authorities would take steps to stop "this abuse of the criminal justice system."
Also indicted were state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who lobbied for the private prisons. Lucio is accused of using his elected office for private profit when he acted as a consultant for Management and Training Corp., CorPlan Corrections, Aguirre Inc., Hale Mills Corp., TEDSI Infrastructure Group Inc., and Dannenbaum Engineering Corp.
Lucio sought to have the indictments dismissed in a hearing in Raymondville, the Willacy County seat, yesterday. Outgoing Willacy County district attorney Juan Angel Guerra, who was himself indicted recently, has been involved in long-standing political disputes with Lucio.
"This is not the first time that Guerra has attempted to turn the justice system into a circus," Lucio's attorney, Michael R. Cowen, said in a statement. "Sen. Lucio is completely innocent and has done nothing wrong."
Judge Manuel Banales of the Fifth Administrative Judicial Region last month dismissed indictments that charged Guerra with extorting money from a bail bond company and using his office for personal business. An appeals court had earlier ruled that a special prosecutor was improperly appointed to investigate Guerra.
This week's indictments are related to the beating death of an inmate in a private prison operated by the GEO Group, a Florida private prison operator.
A Willacy County grand jury last month indicted the GEO Group on a murder charge in the 2001 death of Gregorio de la Rosa Jr. a few days before his release. According to the indictment, the GEO Group allowed other inmates to beat de la Rosa to death with padlocks stuffed into socks. The death happened in 2001 at the Raymondville facility.
In 2006, de la Rosa's family was awarded $47.5 million in a civil judgment. The Cheney-Gonzales indictment makes reference to the de la Rosa case.
Scandals have plagued Willacy County's development as private prison operator. Willacy County commissioners Israel Tamez and Jose Jimenez pleaded guilty to accepting cash bribes in exchange for their votes to award a contract for the Marshals Service jail in 2005. Later, a former Webb County commissioner, David Cortez, was convicted of funneling the bribes to several county commissioners.
That project came in response to a November 2005 promise by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to end the federal policy of "catch-and-release" of illegal immigrants. To detain the illegals, new detention centers funded by congressional appropriations would have to be built. But Chertoff gave the companies an October 2006 deadline to build the Willacy County facilities.
The unrated revenue bonds were structured by Connecticut-based Herbert J. Sims & Co. and Dallas-based Municipal Capital Markets Group Inc., the latter of which was involved in 11 of 23 revenue-financed jail projects in Texas in the last 10 years, according to the State Bond Review Board.