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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Demoted corrections official says he was ‘scapegoated’

OLYMPIA – A computer specialist for the Department of Corrections said he was being 'scapegoated' by investigators for the years-long delay that allowed inmates to be released before they served their sentences.

David Dunnington, an information technology manager for the department, told a Senate committee he believes investigators for Gov. Jay Inslee unfairly targeted him for the reason that a computer programming error wasn't fixed for more than two years after others in the department realized it was needed. Many people were responsible for following up on the fix, which started as a high priority but was later downgraded, he said.

“It was intimidating being interviewed,” Dunnington said Wednesday of his session with two former federal prosecutors hired by Inslee to do an independent investigation. “They saw a weakness and tried to expose it. Because I was the business manager, they targeted me.”

Dunnington, who had been promoted in January, was subsequently demoted after that investigation was completed. But under questioning from Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, he acknowledged he didn't raise the concerns he had with the investigators' report at his disciplinary hearing because he only had a short time to present his side.

He also said he agreed with some of the investigators' basic conclusions: That the mistakes were not intentional or malicious but posed an obvious risk to public safety that wasn't addressed, and that the department had a faulty system for prioritizing its IT work.

Dunnington was one of two witnesses in the two-hour hearing of the Law and Justice Committee, which is conducting a separate investigation into the problems that led to more than 3,000 inmates to being released early over 12 years. The computer that calculated when inmates with certain “enhanced” sentences – mandatory extensions for things like using a firearm during a felony – was incorrectly programmed after a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling. The mistake wasn't recognized until late 2012.

Some inmates were released a few weeks early, others a few months. Several are accused of crimes committed when they should have still been in prison. Among those is Jeremiah Smith, charged with the May 2015 murder of 17-year-old Ceasar Medina at a North Spokane tattoo parlor 12 days after his release. 

Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said Wednesday’s hearing might be the last to interview witnesses. The committee would like to interview former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, who was mentioned in some of the Republicans' most pointed questions about the department's failures, but he now lives in Utah. Even if the committee issued a subpoena, it’s questionable that he could be forced to appear.

“We have not heard from him at all,” Padden said. “I think he would want to come back and respond.”

He hasn't ruled out the possibility of calling the independent investigators hired by Inslee to investigate the problem, Padden said, but he hasn't scheduled that, either. The committee expects to release its own report in April or May, which will likely be written by committee staff because the panel's independent investigator has used up the $125,000 allocated for his work.

At one point, Frockt asked Dunnington if he thought the committee should call Inslee's investigators to testify, because “they now seem to be on trial.” Dunnington replied that was up to the committee: "I don't care if you talk to them or not."

Nick Brown, Inslee's legal adviser, said the governor's office had notified the committee on Monday that it would make the investigators available for Wednesday's hearing.

Padden said that offer came after the committee already had the hearing planned. When it had asked for the investigators to appear in January, they refused, he added.

That”s because they were in the middle of their investigation, Brown said. “Once they were done. . .we'd be happy to have them come down any time.”

Inslee's investigators have already produced a main report, and an addendum, Padden said. If there's something else they need to say, they could issue another addendum if the committee doesn't call them, he added.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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