“Finally, the Department of Justice this afternoon is going to present the $165 million check in the Northern District court of Illinois in Rockford to pay for the transfer,” said Durbin, who acknowledged it was a “rare” move to bypass a high-ranking House Appropriations Committee member. “At this point, the president had to intervene and do this directly. I hope people understand he’s doing it for his state.”
Veteran Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf had long blocked the federal Bureau of Prisons purchase of the prison from the state of Illinois, 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 chairs a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the prison spending. The congressman vehemently opposed the move by the administration and 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 is expected to draw workers and business from neighboring Iowa, a swing state where Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are battling.
The sale of the Thomson prison has been stalled by politics in Washington for at least three years. Constructed for $140 million in 2001, the state never opened the prison because it lacked the money to operate it. Though it 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.
Supporters of the sale contend the prison would create more than 1,000 jobs and provide an economic boost to the region. But the move by the Justice Department could further anger some Republicans who have criticized Holder’s oversight of the federal agency.
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. Durbin said he spoke to Obama about the sale in March aboard Air Force One and said the president agreed to move forward on the purchase if Wolf did not remove his objections.
Durbin, the state’s senior senator and No. 2 Democrat in Washington, said funds for the purchase came from unspent money in the Department of Justice 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. At one point, Schilling 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 fiscal problems and its previous negotiations with Justice Department officials, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s office rejected Schilling’s effort to lower the price.
Durbin said a full transfer of the facility to the federal government could occur before the end of the year.