Dan Pacholke

Dan Pacholke

Washington corrections secretary quits in wake of release errors

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Saturday, February 6, 2016 5:11pm
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — One day after Republican senators sacked a senior member of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration, the embattled leader of the state Department of Corrections is quitting.

Dan Pacholke submitted his resignation Saturday morning telling the governor and a Republican critic he hoped it would end GOP senators’ “shaming and blaming” of agency workers for the mistakes that led to the early release of hundreds of convicted criminals since 2002.

“I notify you now of my resignation. I hope it helps meet your need for blood,” Pacholke wrote Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “I hope it gives you fodder for the press and fulfills your political needs so you can let this agency, our agency, heal.”

Padden, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee that is investigating the prisoner release mistake fired back.

“Secretary Pacholke resigned for his own reasons,” Padden said in a statement. “The accusation of a blood-thirsty investigation is clearly an attempt at a diversion to shift focus from the mistakes of DOC. The investigation is concerned with getting to the bottom of the mess.”

Pacholke, a 33-year veteran of the state prison system, was appointed corrections secretary in October. He had yet to be confirmed by the state Senate.

He’s been under scrutiny and his department the object of two investigations since revelations as many as 3,200 inmates had been mistakenly released early from prison since 2002.

On Dec. 22, Pacholke and Inslee announced a software problem allowed the convicted criminals to be set free ahead of schedule. The early release errors were days, and in some cases, months. Last year two people died in incidents linked with men who should have been locked up at the time, corrections officials have said.

Inslee also hired two former federal prosecutors to determine why the error, which was discovered in December 2012, did not get fixed right away. Officials later said the fix was delayed 16 times and did not get done until last month.

Meanwhile, the Senate Law and Justice Committee hired an attorney to launch its own investigation. The Senate has issued subpoenas for thousands of pages of records.

Padden also has held several committee hearings on the miscalculation of prisoner sentences in which he and other senators criticized the agency’s top leaders.

Pacholke, who has attended the hearings, has repeatedly apologized for the error and said he is committed to holding those responsible for not fixing it sooner. The agency has set up a web site on which is posted numerous documents on the inmates released early and a timeline of actions.

Pacholke’s letter to Padden said the department will rebound from what’s occurred.

“The damage that has been done to the department by this error, though it will take time, will make it better if it is allowed to address this as a system failure and fix the issues this crisis has exposed,” Pacholke told.

But Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, chairman of the Senate Accountability and Reform Committee, lacked confidence in Pacholke’s ability to lead the change.

“Although Secretary Pacholke inherited a culture of apathy at DOC, he never demonstrated the leadership to inspire change in one of our state’s core services,” he said. “I’m disappointed Secretary Pacholke’s tenure had to end this way, but the way he handled it is further proof that he wasn’t qualified to run such a critical state agency.”

Inslee issued a statement saying he doubted Pacholke’s departure would “end the political blood thirst of Senate Republicans. Dan was working hard to get the Department of Corrections through difficult times and he clearly felt that would be impossible under the current political climate in Olympia.”

On Friday, Republican senators ousted Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson by voting to not confirm her appointment after she had been three years on the job.

During the tense floor debate, several Democratic senators asked rhetorically which agency head might be next. Some said privately they think a likely target is Dorothy Frost Teeter, director of the Washington Health Care Authority since March 2013. She’s been the focus of Republican criticism of late. Her appointment could be brought up as early as Monday.

Pacholke’s resignation letter does not indicate directly if Peterson’s firing influenced his decision.

It wouldn’t have surprised Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, if it played a role.

“When you look at what happened (Friday)…obviously they have plans to do more,” she said. “They are trying to destabilize government and then they can blame the government because they have destabilized it.”

Pacholke’s exit, Peterson’s ouster and the looming departure of Kevin Quigley as secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services leaves Inslee in need of leaders for three of the state’s largest and most high profile agencies.

Nelson said it will be hard to recruit for those jobs.

“Who would take these jobs? If you make a misstep you can be humiliated,” she said

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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