State Corrections employee files discrimination claim against DOC

Staff writerApril 2, 2014 

A state Department of Corrections employee who was reassigned amid an ethics investigation has filed a legal claim alleging race, gender and age discrimination by the agency.

Belinda Stewart is seeking $2 million from state government to compensate for anguish, humiliation and lost salary.

“Belinda Stewart’s ability to further enhance and advance in her discipline has been demolished by Department of Corrections’ actions,” the tort claim said.

The department said it doesn’t comment on pending legal matters.

Stewart was the communications and outreach director for the prisons agency in 2011 when Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner reassigned her to a lower-paying position overseeing prison visitation, volunteers, and matters related to gender and religion. Her salary dropped from $99,000 to $82,000.

At the time, the state ethics board was investigating accusations by the late state Sen. Mike Carrell of Lakewood that Stewart improperly ran nonprofit groups out of DOC headquarters.

The Lacey resident ultimately was cleared of the main allegations related to the nonprofits. But she was fined for using a DOC computer to store files for her other job training prison wardens for a federal agency.

She has paid a civil penalty of $8,400, according to the Executive Ethics Board.

Stewart was reprimanded by Corrections over the matter — at least the second time she received a reprimand.

She was also reassigned. But in her tort claim, Stewart said Warner told her she was moving to a new post not because of the ethics investigation but because it better matched her skill set.

She has worked in a hostile environment since then, Stewart alleges in the claim.

Her attorney, Saxon Rodgers, said Stewart had a stellar résumé as warden of four state prisons, including the women’s prison at Purdy and the former men’s prison on McNeil Island.

“You have a person that’s highly, highly respected and qualified, getting replaced by this young white guy who can’t touch her credentials,” Rodgers said, referring to the official who served as acting communications director after she left, a former newspaper reporter who had been on Stewart’s communications team for a few years.

It was not the first time Stewart, 57, ran into discrimination, Rodgers said. “You can’t imagine what kind of abuse she took when she was a black female running McNeil,” he said.

Sixty days must pass after filing a tort claim before someone can file a lawsuit. In the meantime, state risk managers will investigate the claim and decide whether to negotiate a settlement.

In this case, the risk management office turned the case over to the state attorney general’s office for investigation.

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