Maine Gov.’s DOC Selection Ruffles Feathers
By Helen Christophi (01/26/2011)

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has nominated Joseph Ponte to head Maine’s Department of Corrections.

Ponte is currently a warden at Nevada Southern Detention Center, which is owned by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), a private sector corrections firm. He has worked in corrections, both in the public and private sectors, for more than 40 years, serving in the corrections departments or at jails in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Idaho and Rhode Island. He began his career in Massachusetts as a corrections officer in 1969 and was subsequently promoted to superintendent and assistant deputy commissioner.

Ponte’s appointment has some observers worrying that LePage will privatize Maine’s prison system in a bid to increase state revenue, but the governor said he has no plans to do so. He added that Ponte’s private sector experience will help increase the department’s efficiency and cut costs in the cash-strapped state.

“My administration has absolutely no interest or intent of privatizing the current state system,” LePage told reporters. “The only thing that I would ever do and contemplate is if a private-sector prison company wanted to come to Maine and build a prison and pay taxes and house out-of-state prisoners. I may consider that.”

Officials in the town of Milo and CCA have been discussing the construction of a private prison there to hold out-of-state inmates for the last three years, but CCA has refused to sign on to the project unless the state amends its laws to allow inmates to serve their sentences in private facilities.

CCA donated $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which was ultimately spent on LePage’s gubernatorial race last year. LePage denied allegations that he nominated Ponte because of CCA’s donation or to persuade the company to build a private prison in Milo.

Ponte acknowledged that he still owns stock in CCA, which he received as part of his pension package, and does not plan to divest himself. The holdings are minor, according to reports.

Democrats said they were “troubled” by Ponte’s nomination and that his connection to CCA will create a conflict of interest if the firm builds a prison in the state.

“We are concerned about [LePage’s] suggestion that the state attract private prisons as part of an economic development strategy, especially because it may pose a conflict for Ponte, who worked at one of the most prominent private prison companies in the country,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, in a prepared statement.

Ponte’s nomination will need approval from the state’s legislative committees before facing Senate confirmation votes.

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