By Joseph Straw
The Obama administration has gone around Congress to buy an empty state jail once eyed for use in relocating Guantanamo Bay detainees -- renewing GOP suspicion about its plans.
In 2009 President Obama set out to close the controversial military prison in Cuba and move prisoners to the Thomson Correctional Facility in Illinois. Congress slammed the door, outlawing the transfer stateside of foreign terrorists and insurgents.
The Department of Justice, however, still wanted the jail for conversion into a traditional federal penitentiary to alleviate overcrowding elsewhere in the system and to gin up 1,100 jobs in Obama's home state.
But the head of the appropriations panel that holds DOJ's purse strings, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), feared a step toward relocation of Guantanamo prisoners and refused for three years to sign off.
On Tuesday the DOJ filed papers in federal court to proceed with the $165 million purchase, asserting that Guantanamo detainees are not headed stateside.
"We have deep reservations about proceeding without the support of all our appropriators. Department leadership requested multiple meetings with you to discuss the
Thomson purchase, to dispel the concerns you have had with the acquisition, and to explain how the facility would be used," Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter Tuesday to Wolf.
"Unfortunately, you declined those requests. ... Under these circumstances, the administration has decided to proceed with the purchase."
Wolf called the move a "deeply troubling" effort to "circumvent Congress," an opinion echoed by Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"If the Obama Administration is willing to ignore Congress about the purchase of the Thomson prison, how are the American people expected to trust that the administration will not ignore Congress about the transfer of terrorists into it?" King questioned.
DOJ will pay the tab to buy the prison primarily with funds from property forfeitures, and also dip into the Federal Bureau of Prisons' salary and modernization accounts.
Of the nearly 800 detainees held at Guantanamo since January of 2002, 166 remain.
Thomson was built in 2001, but because of state budget problems its 1,600 cells held roughly 200 inmates at the time of its 2010 closure.
An average of three 2012 appraisals placed the site's value at was $220 million. Alternatively, building a new facility would take years and cost roughly $400 million, federal officials say.