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The handcuffs are off

(MCT) — It looks like Illinois will finally gain the 1,100 jobs that will come from converting the vacant Thomson Correctional Center into a federal maximum security prison. It will also get the $165 million that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons agreed to pay for the facility. It’s about time.

The sale has been up in the air for more than a year while the White House, the Illinois congressional delegation and Gov. Pat Quinn tried to reason with a hard-headed Virginia congressman who wouldn’t release the funding.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees prison spending, would not sign the paperwork to “reprogram” the unspent funds that the feds plan to use to buy Thomson. His counterpart in the Senate signed off long ago.

So on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped around Wolf, filing paperwork at the federal courthouse in Rockford seeking a “friendly condemnation” of the property. The negotiated price is below the appraised value of $220 million, so the feds need court approval. They don’t, it turns out, need approval from Wolf.

President Barack Obama himself gave the order to bypass Wolf, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, who said he routinely signs off on such requests himself as chairman of a different appropriations subcommittee.

We’ve been hammering Wolf for months to get out of the way, to no avail. So our first question was, how did the administration get around him? Getting Wolf’s signature is “a tradition and a courtesy,” not a legal requirement, Durbin said. Second question, then: Why didn’t the president bigfoot Wolf a long time ago?

“We tried to be respectful,” said Durbin, who appealed to House Speaker John Boehner to intervene after exhausting the usual channels. “The president and the department still have to work with the guy.

“But we reached the point where we thought this was never going to happen.”

Wolf’s opposition stems from his obsession that suspected terrorists now housed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be transferred to Thomson. That was the plan, in fact, when the feds started looking at the prison in late 2009, before the ensuing political hysteria caused Congress to pass a law forbidding that.

Wolf can’t get over the fear that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder will find a way around that law.

The Bureau of Prisons, meanwhile, still needs cells for maximum security inmates. And Illinois desperately needs those 1,100 jobs — so badly that 10 of the state’s 11 Republican congressmen recently sent a letter to the governor, urging him to practically give away the prison so the feds could get it up and running.

A functioning Thomson would pump $200 million a year into the local economy, they said, and we don’t doubt it. But we’re still irked at the suggestion that Illinois taxpayers should mark down their already discounted prison by another $100 million or so to get around a Virginia congressman with a rogue agenda. Credit Durbin and Quinn for refusing to back down.

This is a win-win deal: The feds get a bargain price on a state-of-the art prison, and Illinois will add all those jobs without forfeiting its investment. The only loser here is Rep. Frank Wolf.

©2012 the Chicago Tribune
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