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How a Former Prisoner Took Down a Big Shot from the Private Prison Industry (and Cheney Pal)

Gus Puryear had his judicial nomination scuttled by a former prisoner turned criminal justice advocate.

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The year-long effort to derail Puryear's nomination generated extensive coverage in the news media, both locally and nationally. The Associated Press ran two national wire stories about the opposition campaign, while both the Tennessean and Nashville Scene published front-page articles and numerous other commentaries. Puryear's contentious nomination was also reported in the Nashville Post and Nashville City Paper, and on the national level in TIME magazine, Harper's Magazine, Mother Jones and the National Law Journal. Additional coverage appeared on AlterNet and Democracy NOW!, and in a Think-MTV video exposé.

Some aspects of the Puryear opposition campaign were ineffective, such as unsuccessful bar complaints filed against the attorneys who had unsealed the confidential settlement transcript in Estelle Richardson's wrongful death suit. Also, research into a methadone clinic that rented its property from a realty company owned by Puryear proved to be unproductive (except to disclose that the clinic was improperly disposing of patient records, which resulted in an investigation by state officials).

The touchstone and focal point of the opposition campaign was Friedmann's website, www.againstpuryear.org, which laid out the various arguments against Puryear's nomination and included links to supporting documents and nomination-related news coverage.

The site, which went live in January 2008, received almost 4,000 unique visitors over a 10-month period. According to analytics software, CCA kept a close watch on the Tennesseans Against Puryear website, visiting it 295 times -- almost once a day. Other notable visits came from the U.S. Senate (54), federal courts (40) and U.S. Dept. of Justice (31). In order to thwart a counter site, Friedmann had also reserved the domain name for www.forpuryear.org.

CCA Strikes Back

It took Puryear and CCA some time to take the opposition campaign seriously, but once they did they mounted an earnest defense.

CCA found a media ally in the Nashville City Paper, a free daily publication with a conservative viewpoint. The City Paper ran several articles generally favorable of Puryear's nomination, reporting CCA's "renewed public relations push" and support for Puryear from other attorneys and notable figures.

Puryear obtained letters of endorsement from a number of well-heeled law firms, including Bass Berry & Sims, Baker Donelson, Neal & Harwell, and Walker Tipps & Malone. Further, he received a letter of recommendation from Thurgood Marshall, Jr., the son of late Supreme Court Justice (and former FBI informant) Thurgood Marshall.

Even the attorney who represented Estelle Richardson's children in their lawsuit against CCA, David Randolph Smith, sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee in favor of Puryear's nomination. Puryear would make "an excellent judge," Smith wrote.

However, Friedmann perceived a common thread. Almost all of the attorneys who sent letters in support of Puryear worked at firms that shared "financial, political and/or professional relationships" with CCA, he observed.

For example, Bass Berry & Sims had represented CCA in connection with securities offerings. The firm hired former CCA senior director Leslie Hafter to head its lobbying efforts; also, Bass Berry & Sims partner Lee Barfield II was the brother-in-law of former Senator Bill Frist, who had employed Puryear as his legislative director.

Likewise, Walker Tipps & Malone had represented CCA as a client, including in the Estelle Richardson case. It was a partner at that firm, J. Mark Tipps, who recruited Puryear to work for former Senator Fred Thompson. Tipps later recommended Puryear to then-Senator Bill Frist, and subsequently introduced him to CCA CEO John Ferguson.

And so on.

In regard to the letter of recommendation from Thurgood Marshall, Jr., Friedmann noted that Marshall sat on CCA's board of directors and owned 7,000 shares of the company's stock. "He thus has a substantial financial stake in CCA's continued success and, of course, has a duty as a board member to be supportive of the company and its officers, including Mr. Puryear," said Friedmann.