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Justice Dept. moves forward with purchase of dormant Illinois prison

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 9:45 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — Under orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department moved forward Tuesday with the purchase of Illinois’ long dormant Thomson prison, cutting a $165 million check to the cash-strapped state and bypassing the objections of a powerful veteran Republican U.S. House member who had blocked the sale.

“At this point, the president had to intervene and do this directly. I hope people understand he’s doing it for his state,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the state’s senior senator and No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. Durbin acknowledged it was a “rare” move to bypass the written approval of a high-ranking House Appropriations Committee member to proceed with the purchase of the northwestern Illinois facility.

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf had blocked the federal Bureau of Prisons purchase, saying he did not trust the Obama administration’s vow not to transfer suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the facility despite a federal law that prohibits such moves. Wolf also said he did not trust Attorney General Eric Holder, whom the GOP-led House found in contempt for the failed “Fast and Furious” gun-walking program.

Wolf, who chairs the House appropriations panel that oversees prison funding, called the administration’s latest move “alarming.” He also said the “timing of this $165 million windfall to the president’s home state of Illinois,” shortly before the Nov. 6 general election, “is suspect.”

The prison also is expected to draw workers and related business from neighboring Iowa, a swing state where Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are battling.

“It directly violates the clear objection of the House Appropriations Committee and goes against the bipartisan objections of members in the House and Senate, who have noted that approving this request would allow Thomson to take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire,” Wolf said.

Wolf and Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the overall House Appropriations Committee, each questioned whether the move would lead the Obama administration to once again consider closing Guantanamo Bay and try to move terrorist detainees to U.S. prisons after previously abandoning such a policy in the face of political opposition. Rogers also suggested the cost of updating Thomson and bringing it to federal prison standards could end up doubling the purchase price.

The Thomson sale has been mired by Washington politics for at least three years. Built for $140 million in 2001, the state never opened the prison because it lacked the money to operate it.

Though the prison was appraised for $220 million, federal and state officials agreed on a $165 million sale price with money being transferred from other lines in the federal prison budget. Justice Department officials presented the check to a federal judge in Rockford, Ill., as part of a “friendly condemnation suit,” Durbin said.

“This is excellent news that will create more than 1,100 jobs in northwestern Illinois and provide relief to taxpayers across the state who will no longer be forced to pay for an empty, unnecessary facility,” Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement.

A Quinn aide said an undetermined amount would be used to retire bonds that funded construction of the facility. The governor’s office said it will work with lawmakers to earmark the remainder to use to offset some of the state’s multi-billion dollar backlog of unpaid bills.

Durbin said Illinois’ congressional delegation approached Wolf several times on a bipartisan basis to try to get him to sign off on the sale, but the congressman refused. The senator said he spoke to Obama about the sale in March aboard Air Force One and the president agreed to move forward on the purchase if Wolf did not remove his objections.

Durbin said funds for the purchase came from unspent money in the Justice Department budget for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

The Thomson prison issue also has been at the forefront of the highly competitive 17th Congressional District contest between freshman Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling and Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos. Schilling had urged the state to renegotiate the sale price to $75 million in an effort to try to get the support of his fellow Republican Wolf. But citing the state’s money problems and its previous negotiations with Justice Department officials, Quinn’s office rejected Schilling’s effort to lower the price.

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(Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed to this report.)

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