After thousands of prisoners were released early, a GOP-led investigation lays blame for the long-running problem almost exclusively at the feet of former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner.
OLYMPIA — Blame for the state’s mistaken early release of prisoners lies largely with former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, according to a GOP-led investigation report released Wednesday.
The inquiry, led by Republican Sens. Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, and Steve O’Ban, of University Place, drew sharply different conclusions from the investigation commissioned by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The new report focuses primarily on statements from state Department of Corrections (DOC) employees frustrated with Warner’s management and sheds little new light on the chain of events that led to the three-year delay in ending the early inmate releases.
The report also suggests that a personal relationship between Warner and a member of the governor’s staff could theoretically “have inhibited the inclination of lower-echelon DOC staff members to push issues and problems upward.”
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The 65-page report offers no proof of this scenario playing out.
The report drew fire from Inslee’s office, which criticized it as a “partisan effort” and took issue with efforts by the GOP to tie Warner’s personal life to the long-running problem at DOC.
The investigation comes in an election year, with Republicans attacking Inslee’s management of state agencies as he seeks a second term. Over the weekend, at the GOP state convention, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant said he’d fire top state managers and reach down as far as necessary into the management ranks in state agencies where performance is not up to par.
In a statement, Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith criticized the GOP report as “nothing new here” and blasted the decision to discuss Warner’s personal life.
“The Senate Republicans have now adopted an odd fascination with Mr. Warner’s personal life and had they even bothered to ask us about this we could have told them that we had established a series of checks to ensure no conflicts of interest with our office,” Smith said in a statement.
That arrangement was made sometime in early- or mid-2014, said Smith, on account of Warner’s relationship with Joby Shimomura, Inslee’s then-chief of staff. Under that arrangement, Warner reported instead to Inslee’s deputy chief of staff, Kelly Wicker, Smith said.
Warner, who left Washington state to work for a private corrections and job-training company based in Salt Lake City, did not respond to calls or emails Wednesday seeking comment.
The long-running miscalculation of prison sentences occurred between 2002 and 2015.
Over that time, up to 2,700 prisoners may have been released early, according to the latest DOC estimates.
After the concerned family of a victim alerted DOC to the problem in 2012, a software-programming fix was delayed 16 times — and not made until this year, after the issue became public.
Denise Doty, a former assistant secretary at the agency said to be the highest-ranking official to know about the issue after its discovery, resigned this spring from a different state-government job.
In a February appearance before the state Senate Law and Justice Committee, which Padden chairs, Doty said she didn’t recall notifying Warner of the problem, though her practice had been to raise such issues.
“DOC’s three-year delay in implementing the … fix, and ending the premature release of prisoners, was largely due to failed management, starting with former Secretary Warner’s grossly inadequate management style and practices,” the report says. “Warner was a poor communicator; he failed to make timely decisions; he was frequently absent traveling to out-of-state and international conferences; he displayed a lack of interest in the oversight of the Information Technology (IT) department and other key departments …”
The report also asserts that an unrelated project known as Advance Corrections could have pulled resources away from fixing the sentence-calculating errors, though it doesn’t reveal a direct link between the two.
Since December, Doty and two other state employees have resigned in connection with the scandal and a handful of others were demoted.
Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke — who was appointed to succeed Warner in October — stepped down after accusing Padden of using the scandal to wage political warfare.
The investigation commissioned by Inslee concluded that poor advice, ignored emails and communication lapses allowed the state to continue releasing prisoners after the problem’s discovery in 2012. Inslee labeled employees’ inaction “inexcusable.”
That report called out by name seven state employees investigators said contributed to the delays, including those who have stepped down or were demoted.
Conducted by two former federal prosecutors, that investigation found no evidence of bad intent or that Warner knew of the problem.
The GOP report — which lists no author but names the Senate Law and Justice Committee’s four Republican members — also downplays legal advice given to DOC in late 2012 by the state Attorney General’s Office.
In an email at that time, an assistant attorney general advised it wasn’t necessary for Corrections staff to manually recalculate sentences to stop prisoners from being released early.
While acknowledging the advice given to DOC by an assistant attorney general, the report concludes, “it is up to DOC to determine the correct course to take.”
The GOP report also criticized Inslee by association.
“How Mr. Warner’s gross mismanagement apparently was not brought to the attention of the governor remains unanswered, and must be better understood if such dysfunction in a critical agency is to be more promptly detected and corrected by the governor in the future,” the report concludes.
Two people are known to have been killed by offenders who should have been in prison, officials have said.
The Senate report comes after Republican lawmakers spent $125,000 for Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine to assist in its investigation. After the firm continued to work beyond that authorized amount, the Senate in March decided not to pay for the extra work the firm had performed.