Twenty-one Democratic presidential candidates spoke Saturday at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention.
The nine current and former federal officeholders we fact-checked were largely factual. Though their brisk speeches of eight minutes or less included hefty doses of debatable political rhetoric, we found no objectively false or misleading claims from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and former federal housing secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris stretched the truth once each.
Biden claimed that he had been involved with a bill that ended private prisons.
“No more mandatory minimums, period. End private prisons – which we did in our bill – period.”
Facts First: Biden was not involved in a bill that ended, or would have ended, the use of private prisons.
Biden might have been referring to the Obama-Biden administration’s 2016 decision to reduce the federal use of private prisons. That decision was conveyed to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a memo from Sally Yates, then the deputy attorney general. There was no bill.
The Trump administration rescinded Yates’ guidance in February 2017, a month after Trump took office. Regardless, the Yates memo would not have eliminated private prisons entirely, noted Lauren-Brooke Eisen, author of the book “Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration” and senior fellow and acting director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Yates instructed the bureau either to “decline to renew” expiring contracts with private-prison firms, or “substantially reduce” the scope of the expiring contracts “in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the Bureau’s inmate population.”
The memo was solely about Bureau of Prisons facilities. Therefore, it would not have affected private immigration detention facilities governed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it would have done nothing to end the use of private prisons at the state level. Eisen said more than two dozen states had private prisons at the time.
Eisen called the memo a “significant attempt by the Obama administration to reduce the country’s reliance on private prisons.” But she emphasized that there was no legislation and that private prisons would have continued to exist.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment on the record.
Harris, the former attorney general of California, took credit for putting for-profit colleges out of business.
“Not only am I the child of parents who were active in civil rights, fighters and marchers, I also had a career as a prosecutor. So let me tell you a little bit about that. … I took on for-profit colleges and put them out of business.”
Facts First: As attorney general, Harris had a major role in the campaign of investigations and lawsuits that put a major for-profit college company based in California, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., out of business. But she overstated her role when she suggested that she put the company out of business by herself. In fact, its final collapse came as a result of an act by the federal government.
In 2013, Harris filed a lawsuit accusing Corinthian of false and predatory advertising, securities fraud, unlawful use of military seals in ads and making intentional misrepresentations to students. She obtained a $1.1 billion judgment against the company in 2016, the year after it filed for bankruptcy.
But Harris’ efforts were not the sole reason for the company’s downfall. The Obama administration had a lot to do with it, too.
By 2014, Corinthian was under investigation by at least three different parts of the federal government: the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Education.
In June 2014, the education department issued a 21-day freeze on federal funding to Corinthian, alleging that the company was failing to comply with its demands for information. Corinthian’s financial state was so precarious that the freeze caused an immediate crisis. Within a month, the company came to an agreement with the administration to sell 85 of its US colleges and shut down the other 12.
Harris’ campaign noted that Arne Duncan, then the secretary of education, thanked Harris for providing evidence about Corinthian. And it pointed out that one Corinthian school, Heald College, begged Harris for leniency as it attempted to find a buyer in 2015, saying in a public letter that “we are in grave danger of being closed because of unreasonable demands being made by lawyers in the Attorney General’s office who are suing our parent organization.”
There is no doubt Harris was a central figure in the demise of Corinthian and its schools. But “I put them out of business,” without any mention of the federal government, was at least slightly misleading by omission.
“As for Corinthian, the final straw was the financial restrictions by the Department of Education. But she was a key player in setting the stage for them to have the devastating impact that they did,” said Kevin Kinser, professor and head of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on for-profit colleges.