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Friday, Jan 24, 2014 1:30 PM UTCChris Christie’s Texas horror: Meet the scandalous prison company he’s long promoted
A corporation Christie's lobbied for and long pushed runs notorious detention center with a slew of vocal opponentsJosh Eidelson Follow Skip to CommentsTopics: Bill Palatucci, Bill Stepien, Chris Christie, Editor's Picks, ICE, Immigration, Lobbyist, New Jersey, Prison, Texas, Elections News, Media News, Business News, News, Politics News[Chris Christie's Texas horror: Meet the scandalous prison company he's long promoted] Chris Christie (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

A controversial company promoted by Chris Christie runs an immigrant detention center in Texas slammed by advocates as one of the nation’s worst. The facility is used by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to house immigrant detainees who are seeking asylum in the United States.

And, noting Christie’s “long and very close relationship with Community Education Centers,” the private company running the facility for ICE, one critic told Salon, “I think it’s time people start asking questions, because this company’s practices are not confined to New Jersey.”

“I’ve visited a bunch of detention facilities in Texas, and that’s by far the worst,” said the opponent, Bob Libal, who directs the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership and visited the Polk County Adult Detention Center with other activists in 2012 and 2013. His allegations echo a 2012 report from the Detention Watch Network, a coalition including the ACLU and the American Immigration Lawyers Association as well as Libal’s group: “Inadequate medical care, poor nutrition, lack of access to legal services, absence of meaningful programming, and a willful neglect of those who are imprisoned there plague the Polk detention center.”

Spokespeople for Christie and for CEC did not provide comment in response to Thursday inquiries.

CEC’s ties to Chris Christie and track record running halfway houses in New Jersey have drawn harsh scrutiny, including a series of stories in the New York Times. Reporter Sam Dolnick wrote in 2012 that Christie, who was a registered lobbyist for CEC in 2000 and 2001, “has long championed the company,” and the state had paid out tens of millions to CEC but “not closely examined” its “financial standing or operations, according to documents, former company executives and state officials.” Former employees told the Times “that the company had kept staffing levels very low” and thus “did a poor job delivering counseling and other services intended to help inmates make the transition to society.”

The Times also wrote that the Christie administration “took no action in response to the [state] comptroller’s warning,” following a critical audit of New Jersey halfway houses, “that regulators were kept in the dark about Community Education’s finances.” When legislators responded to a Times investigation by passing stronger halfway-house oversight rules, Christie narrowed them with a line-item veto, a move the Times noted drew accusations of “trying to protect Mr. Palatucci, the company executive who is his close friend.” The paper wrote that documents suggest CEC CEO John Clancy “highlighted Mr. Palatucci’s ties to Mr. Christie in an effort to impress investors and secure desperately needed financing for the company.”

That’s Community Education Centers’ then-senior vice president Bill Palatucci, a close Christie friend and adviser – part of an inner circle that shrunk this month when the George Washington Bridge scandal spurred Christie to dismiss strategist Bill Stepien. After the Times reported widespread issues with violence under CEC’s watch, Palatucci slammed the paper as the “handmaiden of the liberal left.”

Palatucci left CEC in November 2012 and served as chairman of Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign and co-chair (along with Christie’s brother) of his inaugural committee. (The 2013 Christie campaign has received a legislative subpoena as part of the “Bridgegate” scandal, its attorney confirmed Thursday to the New York Times.)

“There is probably nobody more important to Chris Christie’s political operation than Bill Palatucci,” former state GOP chairman Jay Webber told the National Review’s Eliana Johnson in December. Johnson reported that state Republicans expected Palatucci would take a significant role in any Christie presidential run. Last summer, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar floated Palatucci as a potential Christie choice for placeholder to fill the seat of deceased Sen. Frank Lautenberg, though he argued Palatucci would make “a controversial pick” given his ties to CEC.