Steve O’Ban: Getting out the truth on the DOC debacle

Apr 9, 2016

This guest column was published in The (Tacoma) News Tribune April 9, 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. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County

Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County

Action in Olympia is often scored like an athletic contest with Democrats and Republicans in competition. While some of that may be unavoidable, it’s not always fair or helpful to frame an issue in strictly partisan terms.

Such is the case with the ongoing investigation into the early release of prisoners by the Department of Corrections (DOC). State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and I have led the independent Senate investigation into the debacle as chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Two people lost their lives, and many more were victimized because the state’s largest public safety agency failed to prioritize keeping the public safe. Yet there have been plenty of aspersions cast toward the Senate for insisting on an independent investigation: It’s too expensive; the governor’s report is enough; it’s partisan.

Let me answer each in turn.

The money for the Senate Investigation comes out of funds used to operate the Senate. The first allocation for the investigation was $75,000, which was later raised to $125,000 – not insignificant sums, but far from extravagant. For comparison, the cost of the “Bridgegate” investigation involving New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, is $10 million so far.

In Washington, we’re investigating a scandal that, as Gov. Jay Inslee put it, meant the early release of “rapists, murderers and robbers.” In New Jersey, they’re investigating traffic delays.

Our state now faces a $5 million claim from the family of one victim who was allegedly killed by a criminal who was supposed to be behind bars at the time, and it’s highly likely the state will be subject to many more claims. Given these circumstances, the costs of the investigation have been incredibly restrained.

Process critiques have been equally empty. Criticism that the Senate investigation should have waited for the governor’s report and then “looked at the gaps” is made all the more hollow by witness testimony.

Time and again, our committee heard from witnesses who testified that the governor’s report contained errors and omissions which did not accurately reflect their views. Had we relied on the governor’s report, we’d be taking for granted information that is now directly contradicted by those on whom the credibility of the report relies.

Just as there is self-interest involved when the executive branch investigates itself, there can be a partisan interest when a Republican majority launches an investigation that involves a Democratic governor. Likewise, Senate Democrats have a partisan interest to protect a Democratic governor.

For our part, to guard against these partisan interests, Padden and I were determined to have an open process, where members of both parties were able to ask questions of each witness. The hearings were public and televised. The attorney we hired to objectively gather information had a background closer to Democrats than Republicans.

Before each witness signed a statement for the record, we allowed them to review and make changes to ensure accuracy. If any of our conclusions were to stretch beyond what the evidence supports, evidence to the contrary could easily be exposed because we’ve made it public.

And speaking of evidence to the contrary, what we’ve collected in the Senate investigation leads me to believe that former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner had a much larger hand in what led to this scandal than the governor’s initial report indicated.

Witness testimony indicates that under Warner, the IT Department went from conducting effective triage of department priorities to almost exclusively handling concerns regarding a project and contractor headed by a felon mysteriously favored by Warner. Warner’s successor, Dan Pacholke, testified that the governor’s report gave “undue weight and focus to lower-level employees” and that Warner “did several things to set the context in which this error could occur and go undetected.”

It is clear that the full story has not yet been told. The Senate investigation exists to make sure that it is.

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, represents the 28th District in the state Legislature.