Mike Padden and Steve O’Ban: Why the Legislature needs its own investigation of Corrections case

Feb 24, 2016

This guest column appeared in the Seattle Times, Feb. 24, 2016. After this column appeared, the Senate completed its investigation, revealing information about the conduct of the executive branch that was not mentioned in the governor’s report.

By Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley

Just before Christmas, the governor’s office revealed a shocking case of state-government misconduct. Over the last 13 years, the state Department of Corrections released more than 3,200 felons ahead of schedule. Apparently no one at the agency bothered to check their math.

Police tell us at least two people were killed by former inmates who should have been behind bars; numerous other crimes have been committed — and that’s what we know so far. The worst part is that the Department of Corrections (DOC) learned of its mistake at least three years ago, yet it kept right on releasing prisoners early.

We should keep these appalling facts in mind when we consider Olympia’s reaction. Both the state Senate and the governor announced plans to investigate. But when the Senate announced it would be conducting its own investigation and seek subpoenas, Gov. Jay Inslee bristled, called us “publicity seekers,” went on at length about how we had addressed questions to the wrong people — and so forth. He asked, “What are they proposing? That I not get to the bottom of this?”

Of course he should. The governor is the state’s chief executive officer. It’s his job to manage the DOC and make sure qualified people are in key positions and doing their jobs effectively. By investigating the DOC, the governor is in effect investigating himself.

Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County

The Legislature has a different responsibility. Our job is to ensure an independent, transparent and public inquiry. And that’s only possible if the Legislature, a coequal branch of government, conducts its own investigation.

DOC employees with damaging information about DOC mismanagement understand the difference between an independent investigation by the Legislature, and an investigation by the executive branch of itself. They are coming forward to us with disturbing reports of cronyism and a lack of accountability at virtually every level within the DOC. By contrast, DOC upper management tells us there is no significant management problem and the root cause is a computer problem.

We can safely say, at this early stage of the investigation, this is far more than a software glitch.

The governor’s investigators will release their report soon. Their process is considerably different, and some who have been interviewed by both teams tell us they have greater confidence in the Senate. We are asking witnesses to make written statements, which they have a chance to review and sign. They are testifying in public session, under oath. None of this has taken place in the governor’s inquiry.

This public questioning already has turned up fascinating details, such as the fact, revealed Monday, that the member of the public who notified the DOC of its mistake needed only five minutes to double-check the figures.

The press especially should understand what is at stake. When the Legislature makes a public-records request, it deserves attention. Immediately after this matter was disclosed in December, we asked the DOC for all relevant records — the same process we had used in prior public-records requests. But that time all we got was a note telling us we had sent the request to the wrong address.

In our initial subpoenas, we asked for the same records and others from the DOC and the governor’s office. We have started to see results. We have hired an attorney to oversee the investigation. We hope we won’t need more subpoenas when we summon people to testify. But if we need subpoenas, we would use them.

We can understand why the governor’s office might resent the questions we are asking — no one likes being held accountable. But there comes a point when the Legislature must act.

Two people, Cesar Medina and Lindsay Hill, are dead. We hope the governor will find our inquiry helpful. But what is more important is the independent responsibility lawmakers owe to the people. We need to know that prison officials will carry out the sentences awarded by the courts — no excuses accepted.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, is vice chair.