Investigatory hearing delayed after eye-opening testimony in Corrections case

The Senate Law and Justice Committee postponed its scheduled Tuesday investigatory hearing into the Department of Corrections’ early-release debacle following testimony Monday morning that demonstrated major inconsistencies with a report released last week by the governor’s office.

Those inconsistencies include the omission of critical comments several witnesses said they made to the governor’s investigators regarding he role played by former Secretary Bernie Warner in delaying a fix to DOC software. Moreover, the governor’s report says a middle manager could not document the reason he delayed a software fix 16 times. Testimony Monday indicated he may have documentary evidence that he was ordered to do so by a superior.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, said the comments demonstrate why the Senate’s independent investigation was necessary. “There seem to be material inconsistencies between what we are hearing and the report issued by the governor’s office,” he said. “The pattern of these inconsistencies appears to downplay Secretary Warner’s role in decimating the IT department at DOC and its impact on the delay in fixing the early release problem. I am also very concerned that Mr. Warner’s focus on the risk-assessment project kept the agency from focusing on its core mission of public safety. As we continue our investigation, we are going to have to zero in on these discrepancies.”

The Senate panel is conducting an independent investigation into the Department of Corrections’ improper early release of more than 3,000 inmates who had been convicted of dangerous or violent crimes. Though the department was notified of its erroneous sentence calculations in 2012, fixes were repeatedly delayed, the releases continued, and authorities say at least two people were killed by felons who should have been in prison. The family of one victim, Cesar Medina of Spokane, filed a $5 million claim against the state last week.

The narrowly focused report issued by the governor’s office last week pinned the responsibility on middle managers and appears largely to absolve senior staff of blame. The report downplayed the importance of a major computer project that senior officials chose to emphasize over fixes to existing software. And it claimed no one involved in the early-release problem faulted the management style of former secretary Bernie Warner.

At Monday’s hearing, the first since the governor’s report was released, three witnesses disputed the report’s conclusions and said the governor’s investigators mischaracterized their comments.

  • Former chief information officer Kit Bail said the governor’s report “seemed to focus on people who do day-to-day work and people who don’t deserve it, and [didn’t] have a broader perspective.”
  • Former assistant secretary Denise Doty said Warner’s focus on new risk-assessment software contributed to the department’s delay. The governor’s report “doesn’t reflect my comments to the investigators,” she said. Doty also testified she believed Warner’s management style and his emphasis on the risk-assessment project contributed to the delay in fixing the error.
  • Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who has announced his resignation effective March 10, said poor communication from upper management contributed to poor morale in the IT department. He said Warner’s management style contributed to the delay in fixing the early release problem because so many “hallmark” IT staff left DOC during his tenure. Of the governor’s report, he said, “I was concerned there was undue weight given to lower-level managers, when they were the ones who blew the whistle.”

“In light of the testimony we heard this morning, we’re going to need a little time to go over the governor’s report with a fine-tooth comb,” Padden said. “We were surprised and frankly dismayed to hear so many witnesses this morning dispute its facts and conclusions.”

Padden also noted a witness originally scheduled to testify Tuesday has a scheduling conflict.