Republican state senators didn’t fire Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner when they had the chance.
Now they may want to do so but they can’t because he’s gone, quit months ago to take a new job in another state, far from the glare of the GOP-led inquiry into the state’s early release of prisoners by mistake.
That isn’t preventing them from making him the target of their disaffection and focus of the ongoing investigation by the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
Republican Sens. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley and Steve O’Ban of University Place, chairman and vice-chairman of the panel respectively, seize every opportunity to paint Warner as a bad boss who contributed to the sentence-calculating error going unfixed on his watch after its discovery.
They’ve not accused Warner of knowingly letting convicted criminals walk out of prison early and doing nothing about it — but they have a hunch he did.
“We can’t say that,” Padden said Tuesday. “I think there’s a possibility he knew about it.”
As many as 3,200 inmates were released too soon, dating back to 2003. Some staff in the Department of Corrections learned of the problem in late 2012 but a reprogramming update to fix the problem was delayed 16 times. The early releases didn’t stop until last December.
Two people have been killed allegedly by men who should have been locked up but got out early.
An investigation conducted by two retired federal prosecutors at the behest of Gov. Jay Inslee concluded a bureaucratic meltdown — missed emails, bad legal advice, miscommunication — was to blame.
They found no single culprit and no evidence Warner, who served as secretary from 2011 through the fall of 2015, ever knew about it. Since the report’s release there have been resignations, demotions and reprimands.
Padden and O’Ban contend Warner got too much of a pass in the governor’s report and won’t go easy on him in the committee’s final product. It isn’t clear when that will come out.
The legislative tribunal has blown through $125,000 from Senate coffers and there’s no more money coming. The law firm Republicans hired to lead the investigation and compile a report stopped working when the dough ran out.
Padden and O’Ban are now pondering the use of nonpartisan committee staff and partisan Republican Caucus staff to compile something conclusive and meaningful — and different from the review ordered by the governor.
In the meantime, Senate Democrats want an idea of what lies ahead and Republicans are essentially saying you’ll know when we get there.
Padden said this week he thought everything could be done in April. But he recently requested documents related to Warner from the governor’s office and is waiting for them. The new timeline to finish is May or later.
And if Democrats dislike what they read they can write a different report, Padden said.
They may want to as Padden and O’Ban sound determined to drag Warner through the fire as well as his boss, the governor, if they can.
But Republican senators, who never confirmed Warner in his job, must be wondering if it would have played out different had they fired him when they had a chance.
“We did not know. It appeared he was doing a good job,” Padden said. “Had we known then what we know now we might have.”
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos.