OLYMPIA – The Senate Rules Committee Jan. 19 will consider a request from the Senate Law and Justice Committee for a pair of subpoenas in its investigation of the state Department of Corrections. The meeting is set for 5:45 p.m. in the Senate Rules Room, 220A Legislative Building.
The Law and Justice Committee seeks subpoenas for records from the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections that might shed light on the rapidly unfolding public embarrassment at the agency. Some 3,200 violent felons were turned loose ahead of their scheduled release dates over a 13-year period, and Corrections officials allowed releases to continue when they learned of the problem three years ago. At least two people were killed by inmates who should have been behind bars, according to police reports, and numerous other crimes were committed.
The Rules meeting follows a vote Tuesday morning in the Senate Law and Justice Committee to seek subpoenas in the case. The committee voted 4-3 for the subpoenas, along caucus lines.
Senate Law and Justice Chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the subpoenas will aid the Senate’s independent inquiry into the agency’s management failures. The governor also has launched his own investigation of the Department of Corrections, an agency under his control.
“No one has said the governor should not proceed with his own investigation,” Padden said. “In fact, we believe the governor should proceed. But we are a coequal branch of government ultimately responsible to the people of this state, and the Legislature needs to provide the check and balance that unfortunately has been absent from the executive branch for so long a time.”
There are key differences between the investigation contemplated by the governor and the inquiry planned by the Senate Law and Justice Committee. The Senate will gather testimony in public view, under oath. But the governor’s investigators will not record their interviews with witnesses and create transcripts that can be examined by the public. Nor will they place witnesses under oath or seek signed written statements. Padden said the approach raises doubt about whether witnesses can be held accountable for the information they provide to investigators. It also is unclear whether the governor’s investigators will release all documents they examine.
Although the governor’s investigators were invited to address these matters before Padden’s committee, the governor’s office declined to make them available for testimony in an open public setting. In addition, neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Corrections responded to a public records request from Sen. Padden within a five-day deadline established by law. After nearly a month the Department of Corrections still has not responded.
The initial subpoenas seek records pertaining to the case, and Padden said the information they contain will help establish the direction of the Senate inquiry. He said the committee also may seek further subpoenas so that it might summon individuals to testify before the committee, if they do not choose to appear voluntarily. Padden said he has been assured by the governor’s investigators in private conversation that the Senate inquiry will not impede their investigation.
Law and Justice Vice Chair Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, said the methodology of the governor’s investigation will produce hearsay statements. “We need to remember at least two people are dead because of this mismanagement by the Department of Corrections,” O’Ban said. “No one likes to be held accountable. No one likes to have someone ask tough questions. But it is proper for the Legislature to play this role. When all is said and done, we all want the same thing – a Department of Corrections that sees its primary duty as the protection of public safety. The way we get there is by finding out what went so horribly wrong.”