World history is replete with stories of martyrs and misunderstood characters who were granted posthumous pardons, from France’s Joan of Arc to the South Sound’s Chief Leschi. There are fewer recorded cases of posthumous prosecutions.
A medieval pope named Formosus stands as a colorful example of the latter. Even the death of the short-tenured pontiff (891-896) couldn’t placate his political enemies. They dug up the remains of poor Formosus, sat him on a throne in Rome and staged a mock trial in which they retroactively declared his holiness unfit for the job.
This historical comeuppance could serve as a metaphor, albeit a morbid one, for the latest chapter of a state Senate investigation into an unprecedented Washington prison scandal.
The 12-week-and-counting Republican probe into the early release of as many as 3,300 felons is on the verge of turning into a show trial whose target, former Department of Corrections chief Bernie Warner, has long since departed. Do they know they can’t fire someone who’s no longer around?
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Of course, Republicans’ real target is Warner’s boss, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s running for a second term. The longer this embarrassment stays alive, the greater the chance of writing Inslee’s political obituary – or so the theory goes.
The Senate majority caucus billed its fact-finding mission as a “truly independent” alternative to Inslee’s DOC investigation, but it has now become hopelessly mired in election-year squabbling.
The table was set for this brouhaha in late February when the caucus burned through the $50,000 initially budgeted for its outside review, plus a second allocation of $75,000, leaving it to Republican senators and their staff to complete the work. That means the final report will carry a partisan taint, no matter the previous good work done by the outside investigators.
The inevitable result: Half the lawmakers in Olympia won’t see the Senate probe as trustworthy — even though it was ordered by a coequal branch of government, featured open public hearings and relied on signed statements from witnesses under oath. The other half won’t put their full faith in Inslee’s report — even though it was started and completed by a reputable duo of former federal prosecutors.
To settle this, perhaps they’ll hire a referee to flip a coin.
It’s too bad the process has grown so disagreeable, especially considering there’s no disagreement about the severity of the DOC crisis.
A software problem started miscalculating inmate release dates in 2002, was flagged by lower-level employees in 2012, but didn’t rise to the attention of top managers (and the governor) until just before last Christmas. Among the thousands of convicts let out over those 13 years, at least two went on to kill when they should have been locked up.
Investigators Carl Blackstone and Robert Westinghouse said in their report to Inslee that the errors stemmed from “an inexplicable failure both on an institutional and individual level.” They said incompetence and a poor job setting information-technology priorities were to blame.
Inslee has described what happened as “inexcusable,” “maddening,” “mind-boggling” and “tragic.” Not the words of someone rationalizing mismanagement under his watch.
A software fix was implemented in January. Recommendations from the Blackstone-Westinghouse investigation, completed in February, are underway. They include more hand-counts of inmate release dates, more involvement from senior corrections managers outside the IT department, and creation of an ombudsman to whom DOC employees can report concerns.
Four employees have resigned, including Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke. His predecessor, Warner, is very much alive and employed in another state, at a job he took before the scandal erupted. Needless to say, he won’t work in Washington government again.
And yet Republicans want more.
Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place, who writes an op-ed in Sunday’s News Tribune, said in an interview Friday that top DOC managers need more scrutiny because Inslee’s report focused on lower levels. (Democrat caucus leader Sen. Sharon Nelson calls it “beating a dead horse.”)
O’Ban, who is vice chairman of the Law and Justice Committee and is running for reelection this year, says there’s no reason to doubt the integrity of the senators’ inquiry just because they couldn’t pay their outside investigators to finish the job.
“The onus is on us to make this report fair and balanced and accurate,” he said.
The committee hopes to wrap it up within three weeks, he said.
On Thursday, yet another investigation garnered attention. Attorney General Bob Ferguson released findings into missteps his staff made in their legal advice to DOC.
It seems everyone but Senate Republicans recognize the season for reviewing this scandal has passed; the time for fixing the prison system, and following through with vigilance, has arrived.
Staging a show trial amounts to little more than political posturing and poking at bureaucratic corpses.