Acrimony broke out as GOP lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office began trading barbs over the state’s sentencing-calculation error that has led to the early release of up to 3,200 prisoners since 2002.
OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee hit back Thursday against complaints by Republican lawmakers that the governor’s investigation into the state’s mistaken early release of prisoners won’t be independent.
Two GOP state senators Wednesday night announced they would seek to subpoena records related to the state’s sentencing-calculation error that led to the mistaken early release of up to 3,200 prisoners since 2002.
Sens. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley and Steve O’Ban of University Place cited a lack of answers from Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Dan Pacholke during a recent legislative hearing and questions over whether the attorneys tapped by Inslee’s office could conduct an independent investigation.
The lawmakers said they would carry out their own investigation through the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which Padden chairs.
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Inslee, a Democrat, dismissed those concerns and accused GOP lawmakers of unfairly criticizing the two former federal prosecutors — Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone of Seattle-based law firm Yarmuth Wilsdon.
“Taking political potshots to some degree has to be expected,” Inslee said in a Thursday news conference that covered a range of topics, including the troubled Highway 99 tunnel project. “But I am not appreciative of them questioning the integrity of these two federal prosecutors, frankly.”
The governor also answered two of the questions O’Ban and Padden cited as reasons for undertaking their own review of the DOC error.
Inslee said the former prosecutors would not retain attorney-client privilege, which would prevent the sharing of information in the investigation.
As far as whether the governor had control over the inquiry, “I am not editing any report,” said Inslee. “It is clear that it would not be an independent investigation if I had editorial control.”
“I’m not the screenwriter or the director here,” he added.
Although a crime victim’s family alerted Department of Corrections (DOC) staff in 2012 to one early release, and staff identified a software problem then, the scheduled fix was delayed 16 times and not made. The fix was implemented this week, according to the DOC.
The governor and Pacholke, who have characterized the error and the failure to remedy it as breaches of the public trust, have said they learned of the problem in mid-December.
As of Thursday, the DOC said it had reviewed 1,049 cases of inmates potentially affected by the sentencing error since December 2011.
Of those cases, the department found 222 inmates had not been released early and 720 who had complied with their release terms and were eligible to receive day-for-day credit for good time spent in the community, so owed no additional time.
An additional 107 offenders have been identified for return to custody, with 28 of them having committed, or been accused of, new crimes while they still should have been incarcerated.
At least eight of the alleged re-offenders have been accused of felonies, including charges brought for murder, vehicular homicide, assault, robbery, theft and burglary.
About 2,000 cases remain to be reviewed. Corrections officials say they’ll continue reviewing cases dating to 2002, when the sentencing-calculation problems started.
Plan to subpoena
Padden and O’Ban on Wednesday night made public a letter they sent to the governor’s office announcing their intention to issue a subpoena for records related to the sentencing error and to investigate through the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
The lawmakers said they plan on calling former DOC Secretary Bernie Warner as well as current and former IT staff at the agency to speak before the committee, O’Ban said at a news conference with Padden on Thursday morning.
Warner, who left the agency in October, has declined to comment to The Seattle Times on the sentence-calculating error, but has said he will cooperate with the governor’s investigation.
Padden and O’Ban cited other questions as reasons to conduct their own inquiry, including whether legislators would have access to the source materials of the governor’s investigation and whether witnesses were being put under oath.
“We’ve been left with a lot of unanswered questions about the scope of that investigation,” O’Ban said.
“Even apart from that,” he added later, “it’s the responsibility of the Legislature as a coequal branch to do its own investigation, to reach its own conclusions.”
In a statement Wednesday night announcing the subpoena, Padden said, “By definition the governor’s investigation cannot be considered independent.”
The GOP lawmakers criticized Pacholke’s appearance in a Monday session of the Senate Law Justice Committee, and Padden said Thursdayhis committee had not invited anyone from the governor’s office to attend that hearing.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith fired back Thursday morning at the lawmakers’ subpoena announcement from the night before. In a statement, she accused the senators of “politicizing of the issue” and threatening “the state’s ability to get to the bottom of this and ensure appropriate accountability measures can be taken.”
“They did not inform of us the letter, instead issuing an after-hours press release,” Smith wrote in an email. “Our office received a copy only after it was sent to press.”
During appearances before the media, Inslee has expressed anger over the prisoner mistake, last week calling it “mind boggling.”
The prisoners involved have committed serious crimes, receiving sentence “enhancements,” or extra time, because of certain circumstances of the crime, such as using a gun.
Early DOC estimates show prisons allowed offenders out an average 55 days before they were supposed to be released.
An email released recently by the DOC included advice from an assistant attorney general who in 2012 wrote that the problem was not urgent enough to require extra resources to recalculate prison sentences by hand and stop early releases at that time.
In that email, Assistant Attorney General Ronda Larson instead advised a corrections staffer that the agency should begin the process of reprogramming the computer system — the fix that was later delayed.
Inslee last week criticized staff at both the DOC and the Attorney General’s Office for the decision at that point not to hand-calculate sentences.
Lindsay Hill, a 35-year-old mother of two, and 17-year-old Ceasar Medina, died in 2015 in situations allegedly connected to prisoners who still should have still been in prison.
Other offenders with prison time still to serve have been rounded up by the DOC, including those who have been working to reestablish themselves in the community.