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Thu., July 7, 2011

Editorial: DOC chief ruins career, credibility with affair

Eldon Vail spent three decades building a solid reputation as a respected, forward-thinking administrator at the Washington State Department of Corrections, and then chose to undermine his good works by slipping between the sheets with a subordinate.

He abruptly resigned Friday, citing personal reasons. Tuesday, he divulged the affair to the Seattle Times.

Sadly, his legacy will also include “Motel 6,” “illicit,” and “noon-time.” Government cynics will have another tawdry example of distrust to display. What is it with powerful men – almost always men – who can’t say no to their basest instincts? One would think that the public humiliation endured by so many public figures before them would be an instant turnoff. Anthony Weiner, anyone? How about John Edwards, John Ensign, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and on and on?

Vail told the Seattle Times that it was wrong to have an affair with a manager for his agency, and that’s why he resigned. He dismissed any suggestions of other wrongdoing. A DOC spokesman said no investigation is planned.

But, through his deception, Vail has forfeited his credibility. His version of the story needs to be checked out.

Clearly, it was the existence of an incriminating video capturing him with the woman outside the motel that sparked Vail’s departure. He didn’t suddenly realize he had done something wrong. He figured out that he was caught and couldn’t hide it anymore.

The salient questions now are whether he was having an affair on state time and whether his paramour was the beneficiary of workplace favoritism. Vail himself acknowledges that he was acting unethically.

Conflict of interest issues aside, Vail has also put the state at risk of a sexual harassment claim through his reckless actions. Plus, he has demonstrated the potential for blackmail in sex scandals. Fortunately in this case, Vail chose to resign immediately.

Had he gone out on his terms, Vail would’ve been remembered as a talented, progressive-minded prisons director who managed the difficult terrain of budget cuts while trying to maintain public safety. He was respected by lawmakers and law enforcement alike and was sought nationally to manage corrections systems before he decided to remain in Washington.

It’s a shame that he couldn’t correct his own behavior before bringing his DOC career to an ignominious end.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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