More witnesses dispute governor’s report on Department of Corrections

More witnesses Wednesday contradicted the findings of the governor’s office on the early-release scandal at the Department of Corrections, making a total five in a row who have testified there is more to the story.

During public testimony Wednesday before the Senate Law and Justice Committee, two DOC employees took issue with a report that puts the blame on middle management and largely absolves those at the top. Witnesses included David Dunnington, formerly the department’s acting chief information officer, who was demoted by the governor as punishment for postponing a software fix. Among other things, Dunnington provided records showing he was not present at an internal meeting when the decision was made.

“Five people in a row have found discrepancies in the governor’s report, and we ought to wonder if he is singling out the right people,” said committee chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “As we get to the bottom of this, it certainly appears that former secretary Bernie Warner bears a significant amount of responsibility, and that perhaps the governor’s office should have been looking over Warner’s shoulder.”

The Department of Corrections’ improper early release of more than 3,200 prisoners during a 12-year period has been linked to at least two deaths and numerous other crimes. DOC was notified three years ago that its computers were erroneously calculating release dates for felons convicted of violent and dangerous crimes, yet officials delayed the fix and continued releasing prisoners early.

Testimony in the Senate’s independent investigation indicates Warner and other upper managers placed such great emphasis on an ambitious computer project that important software fixes like this one were pushed aside. The importance of the project was downplayed by the governor’s report.

Committee vice chair Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, said testimony Wednesday showed responsibility doesn’t stop in the middle. “It is disturbing that all these witnesses who have come before us have problems with the governor’s report,” he said. “Our process has allowed witnesses to offer written statements and check them for accuracy. In our hearings we have permitted examination in public session, under oath. None of this was done by the governor’s investigators, and while the governor questioned the need for our independent investigation, I think these failings have demonstrated why it needed to be done.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Dunnington corroborated prior testimony that upper managers caused computer resources to be diverted to the design of a new inmate risk-assessment system. Middle managers responded by downgrading the urgency of most software fixes en masse, he said. He flatly denied an allegation in the governor’s report that he removed a “must-fix” designation for the early release problem, saying that is technically impossible.

Also Wednesday, legislative policy manager Clela Steelhammer said she could not recall events recounted in the governor’s report.

Padden said the Law and Justice Committee may hold additional hearings before it produces a final report this spring. He noted that the governor’s office has suggested that the governor’s investigators should be called. “We actually asked the governor’s office to permit their testimony earlier this year, but it said no. Now that the governor’s office has released their report the work speaks for itself. We need to remember it isn’t the governor’s investigators who are under investigation. It is the Department of Corrections.”