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Confirmation of state prison director stalled as Inslee, Padden disagree over prison oversight

UPDATED: Tue., July 11, 2017, 11:17 p.m.

FILE – Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, shakes Gov. Jay Inslee’s hand in May 2017. (SR)
FILE – Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, shakes Gov. Jay Inslee’s hand in May 2017. (SR)

OLYMPIA – Confirmation of the new head of the Department of Corrections was stalled Tuesday in a disagreement over independent oversight of the agency between Gov. Jay Inslee and the Spokane Valley Republican who heads a key Senate committee.

Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Mike Padden postponed a recommendation vote on Steve Sinclair, Inslee’s choice for secretary of corrections, after a two-hour review of changes made at the agency in the wake of a major problems in calculating the release dates for inmates. First reported in late 2015, those problems led to some 3,000 prisoners being released before they had served their full sentences.

Among those released early is a former inmate charged with the murder of a teen in a north Spokane tattoo parlor during a robbery in 2015. Jeremiah Smith is scheduled for trial this fall and the family of Ceasar Medina, the slain teen, has filed a $5 million claim against the state.

Padden said the delay was a way to “send a message” to Inslee about the governor’s opposition to a bill that contains recommendations from a committee investigation into the causes of those early releases, which occurred for about 13 years because of mistakes in a computer program. That includes nearly three years after the problem was brought to the attention of department staff.

Among the recommendations is an independent ombudsman’s office that would handle whistleblower reports from department staff as well as complaints from inmates and families. The legislation passed the Senate earlier this year, but stalled in the House after the governor’s office raised objections to it.

A revised version passed the Senate in the most recent special session, but stalled again in the House. On Monday, the governor’s office sent Padden a letter reiterating its stance on the proposals.

Inslee doesn’t object to an independent ombudsman’s office to investigate complaints from inmates and families if it’s set up under national standards, Sonja Hallum, a senior policy adviser, wrote. But having that office investigate whistleblower complaints from employees duplicates the work the Legislature has assigned to the state auditor’s office.

Padden asked Sinclair whether he agreed with Inslee’s office on the makeup and scope of the ombudsman’s office.

“We try to remain neutral on it,” Sinclair replied.

“Neutral as to whether it should be independent or not?” Padden asked.

“Yes, sir,” Sinclair replied.

A spokeswoman for Inslee said the department already has set up its own ombudsman program and is continuing to improve it. Stevie Mathieu said the governor’s office “let chairs of the House and Senate committees know we had concerns about the bill, but there was no heavy lobbying.”

Inslee’s office and the Senate Law and Justice Committee each conducted independent investigations of the problems that led to the early release of so many inmates. They revealed that state sentencing guidelines are complicated and the information the department receives on an inmate’s sentence varies from county to county.

The governor’s office investigation listed mistakes made by legal advisers, managers and information technology staff; the Senate investigation placed blame on then Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner and his oversight by the governor’s office.

Sinclair, a long-time employee and manager of the department, was assistant secretary for prisons when he was selected by Inslee in April to be the new secretary. That appointment requires Senate approval, although in Washington an appointee can serve as acting secretary until the Senate votes to confirm or reject him.

Mathieu said the governor’s office was “not surprised” the committee held up Sinclair’s confirmation. He said Senate Republicans are blocking confirmation of 218 cabinet, board and commission appointees.

For his part, Padden was complimentary of the job Sinclair has done in the three months since his appointment. The committee will consider whether to recommend he be confirmed at some future meeting, he added, although that might not be before the session ends.

“He’s trying really hard,” Padden said. “I think he’s doing pretty well.”