Sens. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County and Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said Thursday a new report from the governor’s office regarding the Department of Corrections sentencing fiasco ignores troubling indications of mismanagement at the highest level of the agency.
The governor’s report, released while the Senate Law and Justice Committee conducts an independent investigation, downplays the importance of a troubled computer project at the agency and decisions by top officials to give it the lion’s share of resources available, the senators said.
“The governor’s report demonstrates we did the right thing by launching our own investigation in the Senate,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chairman of the Law and Justice Committee. The testimony we heard today in committee raises serious questions about the misallocation of resources within the department, at a time when one of the biggest management failures in the history of Washington state government was taking place. Unfortunately, the governor’s report fails to see cause and effect.
“We look forward to getting at the rest of the story.”
The comments followed the second day of testimony in the Senate inquiry into the improper early release of more than 3,200 prisoners over a 13-year period starting in 2002. Although the department was notified of its sentence-calculation errors in 2012, the agency did not fix its computer software and continued to release prisoners early. Two people were killed by former inmates who should have been behind bars, and numerous other crimes were committed, according to police reports.
In Thursday’s testimony, former information technology managers said fixes were delayed because of a computer project that placed such a strain on resources that it “blocked out the sun.” The so-called “Strong-R/Advanced Corrections” project, a computer system to determine the level of risk posed by various inmates, was a personal priority of former Secretary Bernie Warner, who led the agency from 2011 until late last year. The information technology officials described the effort as a troubled and possibly failed project, managed by a consulting firm that “wrote bad code.” Warner ignored staff advice to find a new vendor, they said, despite red flags about performance and behavior, and noted that Warner had a close personal relationship with the firm’s owner.
Earlier testimony established that the department’s information technology department had requested that a high priority be placed on fixing the software problems, but someone further up the chain of command formally downgraded the request.
“We had several witnesses emphasize the fact that resources were drawn away from this fix, at the very moment the department should have been making it a top priority,” O’Ban said. “They said the state’s consultant, Assessment.com, was incompetent and caused IT resources to be diverted to Strong-R. At first glance, this appears to be a hole in the governor’s analysis.”
Warner resigned Oct. 16 to take a job with a private corrections and job-training company based in Salt Lake City. Warner has been invited to offer public testimony but has not confirmed whether he will attend the hearings.
The Senate’s independent investigation will continue next week, with additional witnesses testifying at an 8 a.m. Monday session.
COMMENTS FROM THURSDAY’S HEARING
Doug Hoffer, chief information officer from 2011 to 2014, on his decision to resign: “I was convinced it [Strong-R/Advanced Corrections] may not be successful and I did not want to continue to do that.”
Peter Jekel, acting chief information officer in 2014: “It [Strong-R/Advanced Corrections] didn’t smell right – if you were in a fish market, you wouldn’t buy that fish.”
On Warner’s attention to other IT issues: “Benign neglect would be too nice.”
And: “On all the issues I brought up, all I got was a polite listen… then I was told this is what we are going to do.”
Ira Feuer, hired last year as chief information officer of the Department of Corrections, describing his conversation with Wendy Stigall, the records administrator who flagged the sentencing issue for correction. “She told me about an issue that had been out there for several years. …I could tell it had been awhile, and she was very frustrated by it.”
On determining the extent of the problem: “When we started, we didn’t know the extent of the problem… but as soon as we ran a query and did a recalculation on early-release dates, it pulled up thousands of names. That’s when everyone knew it was critical.”