Friday, April 11, 2014

Graft, A Daydream

NM DOC Secretary Gregg Mercantel, a man of dual allegiances.

We already know thanks to NM State Senator Linda Lopez's solitary exertions during his confirmation process, that NM Department of Corrections Secretary Gregg Mercantel is prone to lies of omission. Notwithstanding his failure to report “several incidents,”and given the 38-1 vote approving his nomination, it seems reasonable to surmise that partial truth-telling is part of the position's requisite skill-set in the nation's most corrupt state.

What is the evidence that New Mexico is the most corrupt state? The fact that it is fiftieth in child well-being. These pillagers unabashedly scrape the gruel right out of the children's bowls, so what do you think happens to their prisoners? The abuses are documented, but never answered and never ever corrected.

While I was sitting in yesterday's absolutely vomitous Legislative Finance Committee hearing on the 4+ million dollar “shortfall” in Corrections' budget--and as a strategically staged sidebar, the expansion of the privately operated for-profit women's prison--I let my mind wander, and had the most fantastical daydream.

In the fantastical daydream Secretary Mercantel and I had left the foul air of Room 307 where legislators act their part in an endless and pointless kabuki asking all the wrong questions designed to distract from anything real that might be going on (e.g. modern day slave-catching for fun and profit). And where the dutiful press at best hints of wrongdoing, but mostly takes dictation and lives on to collect another paycheck.

Instead we strolled the lovely lanes outside the Roundhouse among the blossom-filled trees while conversating, and here's the really fantastical part--we were both wearing togas! If you'd been a bird in the bower, these are the words you might have heard amidst the laughter (mine) and the Secretary's gleeful giggles.

Me: I can't help noticing, Gregg, that you're wearing some kind of elaborate bandage on your foot.

Secretary Mercantel: Yep Frances, that's to protect my Achilles heel. You're very observant, most people wouldn't have caught that.

Me: I have a sense for people's vulnerabilities. Did you kill Mary Han?

Secretary Mercantel: No, why do you ask?

Me: You were a homicide cop, right? Who knows better how to get away with murder than a homicide cop? Silly intuition, never mind. Here's what I really meant to ask, more of a policy rather than tactical question—why do we have for-profit prisons?

Secretary Mercantel: We have found over the years that the outsourcing model has consistently created better graft-taking opportunities for us. There are certain inefficiencies in the public system in that regard—periodic audits, citizen watchdog groups, and other roadblocks. If I had my druthers we'd still have a public system, but this is what I've inherited.

Me: How does it work?

Secretary Mercantel: The graft-taking? Many ways, but the main one is the fines.

Me: The fines! I thought there was something fishy about those big fines DOC slapped on the private prison profiteers. Wait don't tell me, now that you've given me that helpful hint let me see if I can imagine the scenario.

Secretary Mercantel: (Lighting a spliff) Go ahead, Franny. Knock yourself out.

In this part of the fantastical daydream I time traveled a few hours ahead to the hot tub at El Gancho where I had a bubbly tête-à-tête with a well-heeled and rather prominent business consultant who acted as a sounding board as I pieced it all together. (Some of this biz lingo is his.) The fines: establish the fine in the first year as $1.8 million. In functional terms the fine is equivalent to the amount of graft that the corporations can bear and yet remain profitable. In year two, the fines are reported to go way down, showing progress and a good working relationship. But what the public doesn't know is that the corporations still pay the agreed upon shakedown number of $1.8, but this time less to the State and more to the graftees, and so on in each subsequent year. The governor doesn't even have to be in on it. Every so often, after deliberately causing overcrowding, it becomes necessary to add prisoner beds to the enterprise to keep the scheme growing and thriving. That's the moment we are now in.

I said as much to the Secretary who by now was completely stoned.

Secretary Mercantel: You got all that from being in the room with me for an hour and a half? Was it something I said?

FM: Yes. It was when you let your guard down, and I saw a furtive smile come over your face. You said that because of the fines, or rather because of the "clarity in the contractual arrangements," you and the operators were getting closer.

Secretary Mercantel: I actually said that out loud?!

FM: Yes. Everyone there heard you. But it wasn't just what you said, it was the manner in which you said it. Like you had a delicious secret. And you do, don't you?

Secretary Mercantel: God bless ya, Franny. (Passing the joint my way) Guilty as charged.

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