Senate majority announces plans for Corrections investigation

OLYMPIA – Majority members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday announced plans for the panel’s investigation of the Department of Corrections, including appointment of an attorney and an effort to seek insight from current and former agency employees.

To oversee the independent legislative investigation the Senate is hiring Mark Bartlett, an attorney with the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine who has an extensive background in corporate and governmental investigations.

Members of the committee also announced plans for an employee email tipline. The “FixDOC” program will allow employees to submit email comments regarding problems at the agency. Comments will be anonymous unless employees choose to provide contact information.

The announcements follow last week’s decision by the committee to seek subpoenas in the case. The subpoenas, issued Jan. 19, require the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections to produce all documents related to the department’s improper early release of thousands of dangerous and violent inmates.
So far the committee has received a number of documents, in electronic form, which are being retained by nonpartisan committee staff. However, all documents received so far have come from the governor’s office and the Westinghouse law firm, which is conducting a separate investigation on behalf of Gov. Jay Inslee.

Sen. Mike Padden, chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said the independent legislative investigation will be a transparent and public inquiry into the agency’s management problems. Testimony will be taken in open session before the committee, and witnesses will be placed under oath. All materials gathered by the committee will be provided to both sides.

Padden said the investigation will offer many opportunities for bipartisan input, including questioning of witnesses. The tipline program will be cosponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, ranking Democrat on the committee.

“We have been encouraged by a number of contacts from Department of Corrections employees who wish to offer their insight into the mismanagement and culture of complacency at the agency,” Padden said. “These front-line workers are really the experts in the way their agency works, and their perspective is incredibly valuable.

“Although we had a difference of opinion with some of our colleagues last week when the subpoenas were issued, we are heartened by Sen. Pedersen’s decision to cosponsor the outreach effort to Corrections workers. Our colleagues want to get to the bottom of this matter, just as we do, and we are pleased to have them join with us in a spirit of nonpartisan inquiry.”

The Senate’s action is prompted by the disclosure Dec. 22 that the Department of Corrections had released thousands of dangerous and violent inmates ahead of schedule over the previous 13 years. At least two people were killed by inmates who should have been behind bars, according to police reports, and numerous other crimes were committed.

During legislative hearings, the Department of Corrections has characterized the issue as a computer problem, but has not been able to explain why it failed to double-check the sentence calculations made by its computers. The department also has not explained why it failed to take action to correct the problem when it was alerted three years ago, and continued releasing prisoners early.

“Although the governor is investigating the performance of his own agency, as he should, the Legislature also has an independent duty to investigate,” explained Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, vice chairman of the committee. “The failure in this case was so significant that it deserves the fullest airing, on the record, in a public setting.”

Mark Bartlett, supervising attorney in the investigation, is a former first assistant for three U.S. attorneys. He has handled a wide range of complex investigations and prosecutions and has tried over 40 jury trials, taking them to verdict. In addition to his extensive legal experience in corporate and government settings, Bartlett worked on the staff of former Congressman Tom Foley, D-Spokane from 1978 to 1981.