A Maricopa County civil-rights leader is accusing two members of the state Board of Regents of having an illegal conflict of interest because they serve on the board of a company that builds private prisons for the state.
Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County branch of the NAACP, contends it is improper for Dennis DeConcini and Anne Mariucci to be regents when they are board members of Corrections Corporation of America. That company was awarded a contract last year to house 1,000 inmates at a medium-security facility.
The formal complaint, filed with the Attorney General's Office, said both should have declared that conflict. Attorney Dianne Post said their failure to do so violates state law.
But Tillman said the issue is deeper.
He said both are involved in working to have the state put increasingly more money into putting people behind bars. The result, he said, has been less money for higher education.
"You're out here fighting and lobbying for more prisons and less for education," he charged.
The complaint says that since 1979, higher education's share of the state budget has fallen from 19.1 percent to 8 percent. At the same time, the amount spent on corrections has gone from 4.3 percent to 11 percent.
Tillman acknowledged the shift in priorities was approved by the Legislature, not by the regents, but he said the influence of money is a factor.
"You're going around the back door, giving legislators money for prisons," he said. "I don't know too many people that are giving legislators money to help them get more money for the schools and the colleges."
That contract approved last year will pay CCA $65.43 a day for each of the 1,000 inmates once the facility is open. That potentially makes it worth nearly $23.9 million a year.
DeConcini said, "I'm very disappointed the NAACP has to stoop to this kind of stuff."
He said the issue has been reviewed by attorneys, and "there is no conflict of interest."
Mariucci also said attorneys for the regents have looked at prior complaints about a potential conflict and concluded they are "completely frivolous."
"In fact, I would go further to say that privatizing prisons and defraying the capital costs away from the state that the private sector can provide in a private prison contract creates more money for education," she said. "I look at it as the opposite of a conflict wherein it's mutually complementary."
The formal complaint to the attorney general says, "More money for incarceration means less money for education," Post wrote.
"It is not an appearance of conflict. ... It is a direct conflict," Post continued. "DeConcini and Mariucci cannot serve two masters."
She said fewer state dollars for higher education means a larger burden on students and their families.
Regents spokeswoman Sarah Harper said in a prepared statement the board "takes seriously" the complaint. Staff council has reviewed the issue and determined there is no conflict.
"Both Regents Mariucci and DeConcini serve tirelessly to support higher education in Arizona to ensure affordable access for all Arizonans and the Board appreciates their dedicated service," the statement reads.
The most recent proxy statement by CCA, issued last March, showed DeConcini at that time had beneficial ownership of 36,396 shares. DeConcini, a former Pima County attorney before becoming a U.S. senator in 1977 and serving until 1995, has been on the board since early 2008 and had total annual compensation, including fees, stock awards and options in 2011 of $176,656.
That same proxy statement showed Mariucci with no shares and just $44,904 in compensation for 2011, in part because she had been named to the board just that past December. She is a private-equity investor and also serves on the board of Southwest Gas.