CONCORD — The question of whether New Hampshire needs to commit $26 million immediately to the construction of a new secure forensic psychiatric hospital has become a point of dispute in state budget deliberations.

Gov. Chris Sununu included the funding in his budget proposal submitted to the Legislature in February, but House budget writers removed it, saying the project needs more study before funding.

While the issue works its way through the budgeting process, one thing has become apparent: There is no shortage of private companies interested in building and operating the facility, and one of them is a contributor to the Sununu campaign who’s hired a lobbyist with links to the Sununu family.

The Department of Health and Human Services was already at work on the project long before Sununu announced plans to include the $26 million in his budget. The department posted a request for information from potential bidders last fall and got three responses, all of which were made public earlier this year on the DHHS website.

The three responses came from CoreCivic of Nashville, Tenn.; Correct Care Recovery Solutions of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; and NeuroInternational of Sarasota, Fla.

While Correct Care and NeuroInternational have origins as providers of residential treatment for behavioral health, CoreCivic is the rebranded version of Corrections Corporations of America (CCA), which operates private prisons.

CoreCivic is not proposing to operate the secure forensic psychiatric hospital, but is proposing a real estate-only solution, in which it would own the hospital and lease it to the state. The management and staffing of the facility would be carried out by the government or contracted to another vendor.

CoreCivic does not currently own or operate any secure psychiatric hospitals.

Class action lawsuit

CCA has been named in a number of lawsuits alleging unsafe conditions that led to deaths. 

On March 28, shareholders suing CoreCivic were granted class action status by a U.S. District Court Judge in Nashville for a lawsuit claiming the company inflated stock prices by misrepresenting the quality and value of its services.

The lawsuit claims Corrections Corporation of America “ran unsafe, low quality prisons that caused multiple deaths and did not save money.”

"The allegations made in lawsuits are not confirmed as fact until a jury or a court renders a verdict," said a company spokesperson in an email.

In the last gubernatorial campaign, Sununu’s Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Molly Kelly, called on Sununu to return campaign contributions from for-profit prison companies involved in immigrant detention, including $10,000 from CoreCivic.

The Secretary of State register of lobbyists shows that CoreCivic also hired New Hampshire lobbyist Marc Brown. He confirmed on Friday that he represents CoreCivic, but declined to comment further.

Brown has a connection to the Sununu family through his association with principals in the Profile Strategy Group, based in Exeter, and co-founded by Sununu’s brother Michael Sununu.

The governor’s campaign adviser Jamie Burnett, was a principal with Profile Strategy, and until April of last year the president of Advantage Government Affairs, where his partners included Marc Brown.

Decades long struggle

New Hampshire has struggled since the 1980s with the fact that its most challenging mental health patients have been housed at a secure unit in the state prison. The push toward a secure unit associated with the state’s psychiatric hospital has been motivated by a desire to get mental health patients out of the prison setting.

Sununu has been a supporter of the effort to build a new SPU and was well aware of the DHHS request for information when it went out last fall.

“We’ve always said that’s a key priority for us,” said Sununu at the time. “We have to find out what is best, whether it’s building a whole new unit or transferring those who are in the SPU into a better facility. Whatever it is, the state has to do something. This is one of those issues that has gone on long enough.”

The DHHS made clear last fall that its posting of a request for information was not intended to result in a contract or agreement, but was designed only to help the state decide whether it would be more efficient to build and run the facility on its own, or contract with an outside firm.

“Before any contract is awarded, it is fully vetted by the Department of Health and Human Services, and voted on by the Executive Council, allowing for full public transparency,” said Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

“Michael Sununu is not a registered lobbyist in the state of New Hampshire and has had no contact with Gov. Sununu regarding the SPU, and absolutely no organization or lobbyist that has business before the state of New Hampshire receives preferential treatment.”

Political hot potato

The SPU has become a political hot potato as the House and Senate passed amendments addressing its fate last Thursday.

The House did not go so far as to restore the full funding requested by Sununu, but did pass an amendment appropriating $1.2 million for engineering and design studies.

At almost the same time, the Senate passed an amendment allocating the full $26 million, but then tabled it for inclusion in budget negotiations with the House and governor.

“The fact remains that Gov. Sununu included $26 million in his budget to build a new, secure forensic hospital. The Democrats’ $1.2M plan fails to fund the new, secure forensic hospital that Gov. Sununu proposed, which would have ended the emergency department boarding crisis and ensured that mental health patients have the support they need,” said Vihstadt.

“These families have waited over 20 years for a solution to this crisis.”