GOP probe of Washington prisons provides some value in the end

From the editorial board

A corrections officer oversees the movement of inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. The state prison system is still dealing with fallout from the mistaken early release of hundreds, if not thousands, of offenders between 2002 and 2015.
A corrections officer oversees the movement of inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. The state prison system is still dealing with fallout from the mistaken early release of hundreds, if not thousands, of offenders between 2002 and 2015. News Tribune file photo, 2013

One hazard of holding a major public office is that you inevitably have messes on your watch that can do damage when running for election.

One hazard of running for election is that you can’t control the timing of when, and for how long, the messes will be put through the meat grinder of public scrutiny.

Hillary Clinton knows this well, especially after it came to light that she exclusively used a private email server as secretary of state, defying agency rules and putting national security information at risk. Clinton deserves little sympathy for the recurrence of the scandal during her presidential campaign.

Here in the other Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee knows he’s ultimately responsible for any scandal that blows up in agencies whose leaders he appoints. None rises to the level of the mistaken release of hundreds, if not thousands, of state prison inmates from 2002 through 2015. It continued even after low-level Department of Corrections employees discovered the underlying software problem in 2012.

The Democratic governor understood he would take some lumps throughout the DOC investigation he ordered in January.

What he couldn’t control was a separate probe ordered by Senate Republicans that dragged on for four months and finally wrapped up Tuesday – the week after Inslee filed for reelection.

Inslee also couldn’t control becoming a proxy for Bernie Warner, the former DOC chief whom Inslee appointed and who quit last year to take a private sector job in Utah.

Does the governor deserve any sympathy? After all, he announced the crisis right after he learned about it before Christmas, and took accountability measures fairly quickly. And the problem had festered during the administrations of two governors before him.

The answer is: not much sympathy. Inslee will have to own this mess as he campaigns for a second term, and learn from it as he completes his first.

In a previous editorial, we took Senate Republicans to task for the duration and open-ended nature of their inquiry. A partisan taint stuck to it after they ran out of money for an outside investigation team in February, leaving senators and their staff to complete the work. We also questioned the pit-bull like tenacity with which they pursued Warner, who is gone and not coming back.

But the GOP probe also surfaced some valuable information, made possible by public hearings, sworn witness statements and a direct email outreach to all 10,016 DOC employees. It gave voice to a feeling of powerlessness and low morale among rank-and-file employees, and a sense of misplaced management priorities.

Some of the Republicans’ conclusions and recommendations echo the independent review ordered by the governor. Both properly call for stronger oversight of the DOC’s information technology department, provisions for hand counts of offender release dates and the creation of an office to handle prison-system complaints. Some of these changes are already underway.

They also agree that public safety must be reemphasized as the department’s core mission and highest statutory duty. It’s telling, in a bad way, that both felt a need to prescribe something so obvious.

But the Republican report goes further by advising changes in the governor’s office. It says systems should be established to monitor agency performance.

“The governor and his staff are not potted plants,” it says, with a metaphoric poke. “They cannot passively wait for secretaries of agencies to bring problems to their attention.”

Judging by this investigation, it seems clear that the current governor – and others in the future – would do well to avoid appointing leaders who are poor communicators and carpet baggers largely focused on their national reputations.

The senators also make a smart recommendation for themselves, advising the Legislature to explore simplifying the state’s overly complex sentencing code.

And say what you will about their burning obsession (feel the Bern?) with the former DOC chief, at least they’re consistent. They want Inslee to consider actions against Bernie Warner, including putting a letter of reprimand in his file.

This is easily the most hollow recommendation in an otherwise reasonable Senate Republican report.

Was the inquiry politically motivated? Inslee’s office says yes. And his Republican challenger, Bill Bryant, wasted no time pouncing on it Wednesday.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, the University Place attorney who co-authored the final report, rejects the idea. “If we were really going to be political, we would’ve dragged this on to October,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Maybe, maybe not. But laying election-year politics aside, the governor could do worse than to use this document as a resource in his demanding job overseeing two dozen agencies and thousands of state employees.