Department of Corrections Secretary Harold Clarke, whose resignation Friday capped a year of controversy over the supervision of felons...

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OLYMPIA — Department of Corrections Secretary Harold Clarke, whose resignation Friday capped a year of controversy over the supervision of felons on probation, was not forced out of office, Gov. Christine Gregoire said.

Clarke sent Gregoire a letter of resignation saying he planned to take a job as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. The new position entails a slight pay cut. He’ll also oversee a system with a smaller prison population than Washington’s.

Gregoire said Clarke told her several weeks ago that he was considering the job in Massachusetts and that moving closer to family was a big reason. “One of his major motivations is his family. My family comes first. Money is absolutely secondary to that,” the governor said.

“This fact is, this man has done a good job, and he ought to be given credit for it, and that’s why he’s being sought by Massachusetts, which is to his credit,” she said.

Clarke’s resignation takes effect Nov. 23. The governor said Eldon Vail will take over as the acting secretary. Vail, a veteran of the state corrections system, was brought back out of retirement last month to help Clarke run the agency. He’s currently second in command.

“It was time for me to move on,” Clarke told The Associated Press in an interview.

Clarke, 56, was Gregoire’s first significant out-of-state hire when she recruited him in January 2005 to run Washington’s corrections system. He had spent more than 20 years at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, working his way up to director in 1990.

While in Washington, Clarke has focused on community re-entry programs for felons, instead of pushing for additional prisons.

Clarke said it wasn’t surprising that he took flak for making changes at the agency. “When you come into these jobs, you’re going to encounter resistance,” he said. “Even people who say they want change give you pushback.”

For much of the past year, the Department of Corrections has been criticized for its handling of offenders accused of violating the terms of their community-corrections status, or probation.

On Feb. 23, corrections officials signed off on the release of more than 80 offenders from two King County jails without the knowledge of the community-corrections officers who supervised the felons.

Among those released were at least 21 with convictions for assault. Gregoire later ordered the Department of Corrections to implement stiffer penalties for offenders who violated the conditions of their probation.

And in reaction to the deaths of three police officers, in separate incidents involving felons under corrections supervision, the governor demanded an analysis of how offenders were being monitored by community corrections.

Tim Welch, spokesman for Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents about 1,500 community-corrections officers and administrative staff, said Clarke’s resignation came as union members talked about casting a no-confidence vote because of his leadership.

But, Welch said, the governor had been working closely with the union to address concerns.

“It wasn’t personal, but it is time to move on and now we can,” Welch said.

The state Republican Party portrayed Clarke as a fall guy for Gregoire, suggesting he resigned in part because of criticism the department received over the early release of prisoners.

Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said Gregoire used Clarke as a scapegoat. “He got tired,” Esser speculated. “It’s not comfortable under the bus.”

Gregoire said Esser should “stop politicizing everything that’s done.”

In moving to Massachusetts, Clarke will take a slight pay cut, earning $140,000 compared with the $141,552 he earned here, but he will oversee a smaller corrections system.

In Washington, Clarke oversaw 15 prisons, more than 18,000 incarcerated inmates and an additional 29,000 on probation. The state’s corrections system has more than 5,000 employees and a $1.76 billion budget.

As commissioner of the Department of Corrections in Massachusetts, Clarke will oversee 11,000 inmates, 18 facilities and a $500 million budget.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick hired Clarke as commissioner on Thursday. He will start his new job Nov. 26, said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Clarke came highly recommended for the Massachusetts position, left vacant after the previous commissioner resigned earlier this year, Harris said.

“He has impeccable qualifications,” Harris said, adding that they are excited to have Clarke’s ideas for prison re-entry programs introduced there.

The criticism Clarke faced here didn’t hurt his employment chances in Massachusetts, Harris said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or