Nearly three years after it proposed the idea, the Obama administration delivered a $165 million payment Tuesday to a federal court in Rockford, Ill., to buy the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois, bypassing a Republican congressman from Virginia who has put the brakes on the purchase for months.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn made the announcement in Thomson, about 50 miles north of the Quad-Cities, that court papers have been filed with the U.S. District Court in Rockford to seek a friendly condemnation of the property.
The decision to move ahead came directly from President Barack Obama, Durbin said in an interview with the Quad-City Times early Tuesday.
Purchasing the prison sets up the prospect for creating hundreds of new jobs in an ailing part of northwest Illinois and in the presidential swing state of Iowa, but it also means a clash with congressional Republicans, some of whom objected to the move Tuesday.
“We’ve waited over a year,” Durbin told the Times.
Durbin said he spoke with the president about the matter while on Air Force One back in March and he got a commitment then.
“It was a decision by the president, and that’s why the Department of Justice took action today,” he said.
The administration has estimated that opening Thomson as a federal prison will create more than 1,100 jobs in the region. Local officials say the annual economic impact will be more than $200 million.
The prison was built in 2001, but it’s remained mostly unused since then because the state hasn’t had the money to operate it. People in the Thomson area have pushed for years to get the facility open, and its economic benefits are expected to help not just northwest Illinois but Clinton County in Iowa, too.
The announcement comes in the midst of a presidential campaign in which the economy is the key issue, and it was made the same day Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan spent the day campaigning in Clinton, Muscatine and Burlington.
The administration’s attempt to buy Thomson has been stymied mainly by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has not been willing to sign off on a request to reprogram funding that has been appropriated for the Department of Justice.
In a letter to Wolf, Attorney General Eric Holder said there were “critical concerns” about overcrowding in the federal prison system and the purchase of the prison was more fiscally sound than building a new one. He said it was time to move ahead despite “deep reservations” about doing so “without the support of all our appropriators.”
Wolf responded to the news Tuesday by saying the administration had flouted the will of Congress.
“President Obama’s unprecedented directive to Attorney General Holder to circumvent Congress to purchase Thomson prison is deeply troubling,” Wolf said in a statement issued with House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
“I am concerned that this purchase will set in motion the administration’s plan to close the terrorist detention facility in Guantanamo Bay by transferring terrorist detainees to U.S. maximum security prisons, like Thomson,” Wolf added.
Wolf has previously said he doesn’t trust the Justice Department and has raised the prospect that buying Thomson, even if it’s not for Guantanamo Bay detainees, could ease the way to send them to a federal prison in Colorado.
He’s also said there are existing federal prisons waiting to be opened.
Holder said the objections are “unfounded” and noted that federal law prohibits the move of Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. soil. Most of the money for the purchase will come from the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund.
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It was nearly three years ago that the president directed that Thomson be purchased in order to move Guantanamo Bay detainees there. The plan met resistance in Congress, however, and the administration said it was abandoning those plans. Holder testified under oath earlier this year that no detainees would be moved to Thomson.
Executive agencies seeking to reprogram already appropriated dollars have traditionally sought the signatures of the chairmen and ranking members of relevant appropriations committees in the House and Senate, but it isn’t required, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Lawmakers can include language in appropriations bills that limit the use of appropriated dollars. And Congress has done that to prevent federal money from being used to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. soil.
For months, local officials have said Wolf has been the lone obstacle to the sale, and they’ve mounted efforts to try to get him to approve the reprogramming. However, Wolf has said there are others with concerns, too, and this summer, lawmakers from states that were awaiting prisons to be opened joined him in opposing the Thomson purchase.
One of those states, New Hampshire, has a federal prison that also hasn’t been opened yet. But this spring, the Bureau of Prisons said it was moving ahead with activating that prison. The Justice Department said the Thomson purchase wouldn’t affect bringing the other prisons online.
The court process that was undertaken Tuesday to buy Thomson prison could take three months to complete, state and congressional officials say. There also will need to be construction at the facility to upgrade it to federal standards.
It’s not clear yet when applications will begin to be taken to staff the prison.
It also will be necessary to get Congress to approve money to operate the prison, something that may be more difficult given Tuesday’s developments. Durbin said local congressional officials will need to work together to get that funding approved.