California prison guard union plans appeal of $12 million verdict

California’s politically powerful prison guards union will appeal a $12 million verdict by a federal jury in a defamation and breach of contract case, the union’s lawyer said Saturday.

The jury in Sacramento federal court awarded more than $10 million in punitive damages Friday to former officials of Corrections USA, a California-based national coalition of prison guard unions. That’s on top of $2.6 million awarded by the same jury earlier in the week for financial losses.

More than $12 million of the verdict is against the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union was accused in the 3-year-old lawsuit of taking over Corrections USA and removing its previous officers. The balance of the award is against Corrections USA and two of its officers.

The jury found officials with the union and Corrections USA broke contracts, spread lies about Corrections USA’s founder and two other plaintiffs, and harmed their financial future as the union was seizing control of the national organization.

“The message this verdict sent was scorched earth tactics and bullying tactics by CCPOA are not acceptable. Maybe the next time CCPOA will think twice,” said Daniel Baxter, the attorney for Corrections USA’s founder and former executive director, Brian Dawe.

The jury also found in favor of Dawe’s company, Flat Iron Mountain Associates, and another former Corrections USA officer.

The union’s general counsel and chief operating officer, David Sanders, predicted the damages award will be overturned on appeal.

“I disagree with the premise that we were bullying anybody,” he said. “We’re going to march forward with the appeal, we’re confident that ultimately our side will be vindicated.”

The 30,000-member union can pay the full damages award if it must, despite testimony that it spends about what it collects in union dues each year and has seen its net worth plummet in the past four years, Sanders said.

The union has been fighting a running battle with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration during that time.

It and other unions lost their lawsuits seeking to prevent Schwarzenegger from imposing unpaid furloughs on state employees to help close the state’s massive budget deficit. Correctional officers have been working without a contract since the administration ended lucrative benefits negotiated by a previous governor.

Schwarzenegger last week blamed the union’s influence on Republican state lawmakers for briefly stalling the Legislature’s approval of changes to the state employees’ pension system.