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Feds purchase prison

Obama bypasses Congress; committee chairman protests

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 12:27 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 12:30 p.m. CST
Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (left) and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin announced Tuesday the sale of the Thomson prison.
Caption
(Angel Sierra/asierra@saukvalley.com)
Gov. Pat Quinn (center) announces the sale of the Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government during a news conference today at Thomson Village Hall. Standing with Quinn are U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (left) and Thomson Mayor Jerry “Duke” Hebeler.

THOMSON – In a surprise move, President Barack Obama on Tuesday authorized the long-awaited federal purchase of the state-built Thomson prison.

The prison is expected to bring 1,100 jobs.

For more than a year, the maximum-security prison has been a political football.

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, a member of key subcommittee, has been blocking the sale in Congress.

But the president bypassed Congress and designated "unobligated" money for the prison, officials said. The federal government paid $165 million, a number that officials said fell between two federal appraisals.

The transfer was made in U.S. District Court in Rockford at noon Tuesday, officials said.

At a news conference in Thomson, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it's a courtesy to get the approval of key chairmen in Congress, but he said he and others waited for more than a year to get Wolf's blessing.

Click here to watch video of Sen. Dick Durbing speaking at the press conference

Wolf was concerned that the federal government would transfer Guantanamo detainees to Thomson, a Carroll County town on the Mississippi River. Earlier this year, however, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder assured that wouldn't happen.

Wolf called Obama's decision to buy the facility an "unprecedented directive." He said it goes against the bipartisan objections of members of Congress, who have noted that approving Thomson would take precedence over previously funded prisons in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and New Hampshire.

"This back-door move by the Obama administration to open Thomson and reject the will of Congress and the American people is dangerously irresponsible and will be met with the full and unfettered opposition of the Appropriations Committee," Wolf said in a news release.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, found out about the move about an hour before the news conference, which included Durbin, Gov. Pat Quinn and Thomson Village President Jerry "Duke" Hebeler.

Click here to watch Gov. Pat Quinn speak at the press conference

Schilling, who is facing Democrat Cheri Bustos in a tough re-election, said he was comfortable with the administration's assurances that no Guantanamo detainees would go to Thomson.

Schilling attended the news conference but wasn't invited to speak. He said afterward that he was glad the federal government bought the prison because it would mean many jobs for the area, but he questioned why the president didn't take the action a long time ago.

During the news conference, Durbin said he spoke about Thomson with Obama on a March 16 Air Force One trip. Durbin, an Obama ally, said he pleaded with the president to appropriate unobligated money to the prison.

It was done Tuesday because the fiscal year had just ended, Durbin said.

Opening the prison will provide jobs for residents in Illinois and Iowa, a battleground in the presidential election. Officials estimated the facility would have about $200 million in annual economic impact.

The state built the 1,600-cell prison a decade ago, then decided it couldn't afford to run it. It had been looking for a buyer for years.

At the news conference, Durbin and Quinn credited the village president for keeping the project on the front burner. Hebeler never gave up, the senator said.

"I have the voicemails to prove it," Durbin said.

Durbin estimated it will take $40 million to $50 million to bring the prison up to federal standards.

"It'll bring a breath of life to the economy," he said.

He declined to speculate on when the prison would open.

Quinn said the state needed the money.

"It'll help pay our bills. We have bills to pay, as everyone knows," he said at the conference.

Although the prison has been mired in Washington politics, Quinn said, "There is no such thing as Democratic or Republican jobs."

The news conference was a big event in Thomson, population 590. The officials spoke in front of Village Hall on a blocked-off Market Street. A dozen cameramen were in front. A couple of dozen residents stood behind them, applauding at times.

Everyone interviewed said they found out about the event shortly beforehand.

Lewis Frosch, a 73-year-old retiree, like other residents, backed the purchase.

"It's going to be a boon for this town," he said. "The whole area will benefit."

Larry Stebbins, mayor of Savanna, 10 miles down the road, said that originally the prison was supposed to be in Savanna. But he said that doesn't matter now, saying it would benefit the region.

"It's awesome," he said.

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