The Political Incest of Incarceration.
The Richmond City Jail has some serious issues. The building was originally designed to hold 850 inmates, but has been cramming in between 1,400 and 1,600 people at any given time. Reporting on the situation almost exactly one year ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that the population routinely includes hundreds with mental-health problems and dozens awaiting trial on minor charges for which the sentence is less than the time they spend waiting for their day in court. 
Plans for renovations have been tossed around for some time, but the problem is money. What to do in a state with a $2.2 billion budget shortfall? Mayor Dwight Jones had an idea.
Back in 2002, legislation known as the “Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act” was passed by the General Assembly. Its primary purpose was ostensibly to allow private investors to participate in the construction (and profit-making) of any facility that is operated as part of the public school system or as an institution of higher education, hence the title.
But it also allows for private involvement with any building for principal use by any public entity. Since jails are technically public entities (run by the state), Jones decided to solicit proposals for jail renovations from private companies in the Richmond area.
Eleven companies responded to the city with proposals for renovating the old jail. All of them would be returned without ever being opened. It was only the 12th, unsolicited proposal that Mayor Jones was interested in – not to renovate the old jail, but to construct an entirely new one with greater capacity on the south side. The proposal came from a corporation called City Central, and is comprised of at least five major campaign contributors to none other than Mayor Dwight Jones himself.
A key figure in City Central – which is essentially a corporation comprised of other companies and corporations – is one Senator Henry Marsh.
Marsh was considered a “key supporter” of Jones in the mayoral election, and in return, Jones donated almost $1,000 to Marsh’s senate run in radio ads, banquet tickets and straight contributions. The two have long been political allies.
More importantly to our story, Marsh is a major player in two City Central companies, both law firms:
1) Hill, Tucker & Marsh, the senator’s law firm
2) Williams Mullen
Lawyers With Jails and Cucumbers
Williams Mullen is one of the 150 largest law firms in the country. The Richmond branch is located on Cary Street downtown.
If the name of the firm sounds familiar, you may be remembering the law suit of a Richmonder and former Williams Mullen employee, Hanh Nguyen Allgood. When Allgood, a Vietnamese woman, sat down for her first day of work with the company, she was approached by a superior and asked whether she had a horizontal vagina – a racial myth spread through the ranks of soldiers during the Vietnam War. But her law suit was filed after the same man, Robert Eicher sexually harassed her with a cucumber. In the words of the suit:
- When the doors closed, Robert Eicher pretended to be sad and depressed. He asked Allgood for a hug. When she complied, he pressed his genital area against Allgood’s left thigh. Allgood felt something hard pressing against her thigh and attempted to pull away from him. Eicher held Allgood tighter to prevent her from pulling away, and pressed his genital area against her thigh even harder. Allgood was horrified. She pushed him away and stepped back. In response, Eicher laughed and pulled a cucumber out of his pants pocket.
Another employee has filed an age discrimination suit, and yet another current employee had this to say (anonymously):
Decisions are made concerning staff without any input from staff, then they wonder why we are not excited. They have implemented a 60% Short term disability plan and now say that you don’t need to have/save any sick leave, so they are taking all the prior accumulated leave away from staff as of 12/31/10!! You will be given 5 sick days per year and NO CARRY OVER!! No raises or bonuses were given… No one even said thank you to ANY staff person for all the hard work you do during the year.
Some tracking sites list Williams Mullen as the greatest single contributor to Mayor Dwight Jones’ campaign, others have them tied with Dominion Power. But their influence extends beyond campaign contributions.
The working group whose job it is to develop and revise guidelines and recommendations for these public-private partnerships is stacked with no less than three contributors from Williams Mullen:
Charles Wall – Registered lobbyist for Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mining company even larger than Massey that engages in destructive and controversial mountain top removal practices. Wall has already worked with ANR using the same public-private partnership legislation.
Reginald N. Jones – Registered lobbyist for Altria, or Phillip Morris, if you prefer.
Ralph L. “Bill” Axselle, Jr. – Lobbyist for Williams Mullen
To put all this into perspective:
After making $250 million in cuts to education this year, the state uses a privatization law designed to aid public education and infrastructure to pay for a jail instead. Mayor Jones returns nearly a dozen renovation proposals he requested without even opening them, opting instead for an entirely new proposal from a handful of companies that helped elect him. One of these companies is a major law firm that profits from the jail while simultaneously influencing the guidelines of the law itself. One of the firm’s partners, Senator Marsh, is not only a personal contributor to Mayor Jones, but is part of two companies that helped elect him, both of which would profit from the jail.
Needless to say, this analysis (to the degree that it’s accurate) brings up a host of ethical questions. Mayor Jones might have tried to avoid the appearance of crony capitalism by at least looking at the proposals of companies that didn’t elect him. It may be a conflict of interest (or otherwise objectionable) for a law firm to build a jail. It may be dubious for that same law firm to be given influence over legislation that it will profit from.
But rest assured, it’s all legal.