OLYMPIA — Senators investigating the mistaken early release of inmates zeroed in Monday on the role of the former Department of Corrections leader in allowing the problem to go unfixed for years.
A Senate panel quizzed witnesses on whether the management style of ex-corrections secretary Bernie Warner set a tone in the department that drove some workers to leave and left others reluctant to push concerns up the chain of command.
One witness, current corrections boss Dan Pacholke, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee that he took charge in October and found a “high level of dysfunction” in the division where the sentencing miscalculation error was discovered in 2012.
Pacholke, who had been Warner’s chief deputy, said his former boss’ demeanor, inaccessibility and deliberative decision-making “set the context” for the agency’s failure to halt wrongful releases for so long.
After the hearing, Republicans on the Senate Law and Justice Committee said Warner deserved more blame than assigned him in a report issued Feb. 25 by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
“I think there are some glaring omissions,” Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, said of the investigation done by two retired federal prosecutors. “There’s certainly a pattern of trying to downplay the role of Bernie Warner’s management.”
“The secretary bears some responsibility,” he said Monday. “We made that clear. There was legitimate concern about how the department was run. I don’t think there is any argument about that. Enough said.”
Warner no longer works for the state and attention now is on taking “accountability measures” with employees whose actions allowed the mistake to go unfixed, he said.
Warner, who works for a private prison operator based in Utah, has been asked to testify but indicated he might do so only if his travel expenses are covered, said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the committee’s chairman.
“We don’t plan on paying,” Padden said.
Roughly 3,000 convicted criminals walked out of prison too soon because of the miscalculation of their sentences. The mistaken releases started in 2002 but no one realized it until 2012 when a victim’s family told corrections officials they were about to be let a prisoner out early.
Fixing the problem required recoding software used to calculate sentences. A proposed change wound up being delayed 16 times between December 2012 and Dec. 22, 2015. That’s when Inslee revealed the problem and ordered every inmate’s sentence to be recalculated by hand. It was completed in January.
At that time Inslee hired the retired prosecutors. Their report concluded the early releases were “caused by a series of errors coupled with bureaucratic incompetence, systemic failures of process and management, and an inexplicable failure both on an institutional and individual level to appreciate the fact that releasing even one inmate early, let alone thousands, undermined the core mission of the Department of Corrections, which is to protect the public.”
It singled out seven current and former corrections employees for having knowledge of the problem long before it had been taken care of.
At Monday’s hearing, Denise Doty, the former assistant secretary and highest ranking official to admit knowing of the error, testified.
She said when she learned of the problem, she thought it would be resolved in “a matter of months.” She said she would have taken other steps, including recalculating sentences had she known it would go unfixed for so long.
When asked if she ever told Warner about the problem, she said she did “not have a specific recollection” but that “it was certainly my practice” to let him know of issues as they arose.
Doty moved to another state agency in 2014 and resigned from there earlier this year.
Pacholke followed, his first public sitdown with Padden since sending the senator a blistering letter announcing his intent to resign.
“I hope it helps meet your need for blood. I hope it gives you fodder for the press and fulfills your political needs so you can let this agency, our agency, heal,” Pacholke wrote.
That letter didn’t come up Monday. Rather, a cool-headed Pacholke painted a picture of an agency in distress under Warner who was appointed secretary by Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2011 and kept on by Inslee.
Pacholke said Warner’s style contributed to the “loss of a lot of legacy talent” in the information technology section where the software coding fix would be carried out.
Pacholke never said Warner knew about the error. He did say he thought the report prepared for the governor focused responsibility too low on the chain of command.
“I was concerned there was undue weight given to lower-level managers, when they were the ones who blew the whistle,” he said.
The Senate panel scheduled another hearing Tuesday but Padden canceled it late Monday.
The Senate has allotted $125,000 so far for this investigation.
Padden told reporters it may not be done until after the session is scheduled to end March 10.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com