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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Senate panel wants documents on head of prisons

OLYMPIA – A Senate committee is demanding records that include e-mails, appointments and travel schedules for the head of the Corrections Department during much of the time the agency delayed fixing a computer problem that allowed some inmates to be released before their sentences were finished.

Sen. Mike Padden, the chairman of the Law and Justice Committee, asked the department and the governor’s office this week for records involving Bernie Warner, who was corrections secretary between 2011 and October 2015.

Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican, says in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee that witnesses in the committee’s investigation have questioned whether Warner’s management style contributed to delays in the department fixing a problem that came to some employees’ attention in late 2012 but wasn’t fixed until late 2015.

“These questions naturally also raise the question of whether you and your staff provided adequate oversight to an agency during a time of such catastrophic failure,” Padden wrote. The committee is requesting copies of communication between Warner and Inslee, the governor’s chief of staff, his policy staff for corrections and Warner’s direct supervisor.

Jaime Smith, Inslee’s communications director, said the governor’s office will fulfill the request as quickly as possible. She wasn’t sure how voluminous the record files would be, and they may have to be released in batches.

Incorrect revisions in 2002 to the computer program that calculated sentences resulted in some 3,200 prisoners being given too much credit for good behavior, allowing them to be released too soon. Some of those released early committed crimes when they should have still been in prison, including one former inmate who is charged with a murder in northwest Spokane.

Warner had resigned as corrections secretary before a new information technology officer discovered the needed computer fix hadn’t been made more than two years after it was requested. 

“I think the governor was as clear as he could have been that if Bernie Warner had still been corrections secretary, he would have been fired,” Smith said.

Separate investigators hired by Inslee have concluded there was “a systemic failure” at the department, she said, and no one person could be faulted for the early releases. “If they have information that leads to a different conclusion of what could have prevented this, we would love to hear it.” 

Padden said last week the committee would release a report on its investigation in April or May, although it’s not clear whether the time needed to fill this new request for documents -- and for staff to review them -- will delay that.

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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