Aurora Chamber chief pressured to boot GEO prison CEO from exec board

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AURORA | Over the past few weeks Aurora Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Hougen says he’s been bombarded with phone calls — some of them angry and profane — wanting Johnny Choate, the warden of the local immigration detention facility, removed from the chamber’s board of directors.

As the chamber’s chief, he says that’s not going to happen.

GEO Group Inc. owns and operates the detention center in north Aurora, mostly housing detainees for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. The facility has room for more than 1,500 detainees. It opened annex space earlier this year, saying the extra space was needed for more people arriving from the southern border. Most of the detainees are awaiting asylum hearings, ICE officials have consistently said. That means the bulk of the detainees have no criminal record.

In this Saturday, April 15, 2017, photograph, the entrance to the GEO Group’s immigrant detention facility is shown in Aurora, Colo. People once held in a privately run Colorado immigration detention center are challenging the system used to keep it clean and maintained, arguing it borders on slavery. They have won the right to sue GEO Group on behalf of an estimated 60,000 people held at its detention center near Denver over a decade. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Callers have been denouncing conditions in the Aurora facility and similar detention facilities across the country. Hougen said some of the callers reference conditions in detention centers not owned by GEO and not in Colorado.

“I think the facilities across the U.S. are overwhelmed and it becomes a heated discussion with a lot of anger,” Hougen said. “A lot of the calls are about the children. So when I counter and say, ‘We’ve never had a child in the Aurora GEO facility, you’re getting it confused with something else,’ they go ballistic.”

While Hougen said many of the callers don’t seem to be local, the criticisms focus on the Aurora GEO Group facility and Choate’s place on the chamber board.

At least some of the calls for Hougen to oust Choate come from the chamber’s back yard.

Arapahoe County Democratic Party Chair Kristen Mallory posted in a Facebook group called “Colorado Dems of House District 3” on July 6 requesting that “if you think that the Warden of the GEO Group facility in Aurora doesn’t represent the Aurora YOU KNOW AND LOVE — I would ask that you let them know and you request the Board of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce remove Mr. Choate from it’s leadership.”

Mallory said she was posting as a resident and private citizen, not as the chairwoman of the local Democratic party.

Likewise, Aurora City Council member Allison Hiltz denounced the company’s inclusion in the business community. At a protest held at the detention center on Friday Hiltz condemned the detention center, highlighting its chamber membership. Two other council members, Crystal Murillo and Nicole Johnston endorsed Hiltz’s speech.

“We know that major businesses like Bank of America, JPMorgan, and SunTrust are stepping away from financing the private prison industry,” Hiltz said in the speech. “We also know that, unlike these companies, GEO Group is propped up as a business leader here in Aurora and holds a seat on the board for the Aurora Chamber of Commerce – an organization that received $70,000 in taxpayer dollars out of the council budget last year.”

The company said it has worked hard to contribute to Aurora’s community.

“We categorically denounce these politically-motivated calls,” a GEO spokesman told the Sentinel. “Our employees are active and contributing members in the community. We have been committed to fostering good relationships with local government and community organizations in Aurora for more than 30 years.”

Choate has been involved in the chamber for about three years, Hougen said. But he’s unsure the GEO warden  will come to another meeting.

“Johnny doesn’t feel comfortable coming to our board meetings,” Hougen said. “I feel sorry for him and his family and the 700 employees (at the facility.)”

Hougen said the board discussed Choate’s membership, but wouldn’t ask for his resignation or remove him from the board because it becomes a “slippery slope” of what industries are welcome on the board. Hougen said he thinks it’s possible that people would then call for oil and gas industry representatives to be removed from the board, or charter school representatives, or leaders in the healthcare industry.

Hiltz disagreed.

“If you repeatedly demonstrate a blatant disregard for the health and safety of human lives by failing to comply with federal standards of care, then perhaps you should not represent our business community in a formal leadership position, regardless of industry,” Hiltz said.

Choate and GEO Group officials alike have denounced criticisms of conditions inside the facility.

Last summer, Choate penned a column for The Hill, a Washington-based political newspaper, saying accusations of “little accountability or oversight of our operations are flatly wrong.”

“It is disheartening to open a newspaper or turn on the TV only to see misleading information and politically-driven insinuations about the services The GEO Group (GEO) provides to the federal government,” he wrote, noting that the detention center complies “with performance-based standards set by the federal government and adhere to guidelines set by leading third-party accreditation agencies.”

Months after submitting that op-ed to the Hill, the Office of Inspector General made an unannounced visit to the Aurora facility.

Inspectors say they found “open packaged food (that) was not properly relabeled and dated for future consumption,” lack of outdoor recreational space, male and female detainees sharing recreational space, detainees that were not allowed in-person visits and “serious issues with the administrative and disciplinary segregation of detainees.”

Inspectors said they visited the Aurora site Nov. 6-8, 2018.

Following the release of the report, GEO staff said they swiftly fixed the shortcomings discovered by the federal investigators.

The private prison company also found itself embroiled in controversy when a report detailed the weeks leading up to the death of Kamya Samimi, a 64-year-old Iranian citizen who was detained at the detention center. That internal report found several mishandlings by the GEO Group staff when Samimi complained of his deteriorating health two weeks leading up to his death on Dec. 2, 2017.

Hougen said he’s disappointed that some local leaders have taken “an anti-business approach” to the immigration debate.

“It’s not fair to demonize businesspeople because they’re on our board,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who just want to close down all these private prisons, and I don’t know what the solution is.”