Dueling letters fired off by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) indicate that Illinois will not complete a sale of the unused Thomson Correctional Center in Carroll County anytime soon – thanks largely to Wolf’s ill will toward Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama.
In a sweeping four-page missive (PDF) to Durbin Friday that begins with quoting Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (“Man hears what he wants to hear…and disregards the rest”), Wolf explained that his problem is not with the senator. “I don’t want this situation to develop into a ‘Durbin v. Wolf’ battle,” he added.
Instead, Wolf's gripe is with Obama's alleged abuse of power.
Also, despite assurances to the contrary, Wolf writes that Guantanamo detainees may end up in Thomson or another federal facility. “I do not trust this administration not to acquire Thomson to make room in other high security prisons to transfer detainees to the U.S," Wolf wrote.
Wolf chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that approves the federal Bureau of Prisons budget. So he has the power to reject the Justice Department’s request that $165 million in unused Bureau of Prison, BOP, money be reprogrammed to converting Thomson into a federal prison.
Built in 2002, Thomson sat unused and largely unnoticed outside Carroll County until 2009 when Durbin and Obama floated the idea of transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to the facility. The U.S. House of Representatives swiftly squelched the detainee transfer idea and Durbin, and the state, turned to Plan B of selling Thomson to the BOP.
Durbin bills the prison sale idea as a means to create 1,100 jobs and alleviate federal prison overcrowding. The sale has the public support of just about every Illinois member of Congress plus the relevant U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee.
As we have previously reported, U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona), whose 17th district encompasses Thomson, has pushed for the sale. Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos says that Schilling ought to be doing more, such as twisting the arm of his GOP colleague Wolf.
But despite the support of Schilling and other Republicans, Wolf’s letter characterizes the sale as a Durbin earmark. In his response letter Friday, Durbin argues that the prison hardly meets the definition of an earmark as it was first proposed by the Obama administration.
Wolf, though, wants no part of any Obama administration plan, blasting the president for a number of his policy decisions including not defending The Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits gay marriage, to issuing a two-year deportation reprieve for some undocumented immigrants.
Holder also has committed a number of misdeeds in Wolf’s eyes from involvement in the Fast and Furious gun tracking operation to interpreting that The Wire Act does not apply to online lottery ticket sales.
Wolf acknowledges that on June 15 Holder said under oath at a Senate committee hearing that no Guantanamo detainees would move to Thomson. But Wolf is “wary” that Holder “did not make similar assurances for other high security BOP facilities like the supermax in Florence, Colorado.”
Wolf’s words are a rebuke to some Illinois officials who thought a prison sale was near. After Holder’s under oath testimony, it was not clear if Wolf still opposed the sale: He had not made a public statement about Thomson or communicated with Durbin’s office since the beginning of the year.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reported that this session’s Congress is arguably the legislative body’s worst since World War Two, from a record-low number of laws passed to the record-high amount of party polarization.
Part of the problem may be lawmakers such as Wolf. The powerful appropriator has used a string of disassociated grievances with President Obama and AG Holder as reason to block a specific local project that could tangibly benefit Northwest Illinois and also the federal prison system.