My ethics charges against former Department of Corrections manager Belinda Stewart were found to be valid. Stewart was fined $17,000 and a(nother) letter of reprimand was placed in her employee file. The investigation into those charges by the state Executive Ethics Board revealed a host of other potential problems within management at DOC, including conflicts of interest, lack of accountability and acquiescence of responsibility. Not to mention the fact that the department has had three different leaders in just the past few years, and front-line workers are so fed up that they’ve created their own website to help draw attention to their department’s condition.
It is clear to me that a better good faith effort to clean up the ethics problems at DOC would send a great message to lawmakers, rank-and-file employees and the public in general that the department is cleaning house. Just like shaking a Christmas tree before you take it home to make sure all the dead needles fall away, corrections managers need to shed their dead weight so the taxpayers of this state can see clearly that the department is ready to reform itself. Management must be held to the same standard as front-line employees and the department must rid itself of the double standard that currently exists.
In that regard, I’ve asked acting DOC secretary Bernie Warner to fire Belinda Stewart and make a series of moves to bring accountability back to the department’s management. In fact, as the Chair of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee, it is my responsibility to vet the gubernatorial appointee before he can be confirmed by the full Senate. However, in a letter to me regarding this matter, Warner explains that he believes the third letter of reprimand (from as many department heads) and the financial penalty imposed by the ethics board is enough punishment for breaking state law. He closes by stating his intention to continue Stewart’s employ at the agency.
My office door has been revolving with the number of DOC whistleblowers who are bringing in stack after stack of evidence showing management’s lack of accountability, questionable decision-making, and retaliation against anyone trying to right an observed wrong. However it seems that Warner is trying to find a way to justify the lack of action by the department; at the very minimum I believe his inaction is sending a message that department leadership is at least partially culpable as well. As you can read in his letter, he’s done some things to rectify the situation but the poster child for this improper activity is still there and it sends the wrong message. If you’re high enough up the chain of management, you can break the law and get away with only a slap on the wrist.
For this reason, without further action by the department, I don’t see any reason to send Warner’s nomination to the full Senate for approval. In fact, this is the second consecutive nomination by two different governors (last year under committee chair, Sen. Jim Hargrove) that we refused to support. Even without confirmation he can continue as acting secretary, but in my opinion his confirmation depends on Belinda’s termination.
Again, this is not solely about Belinda Stewart. It’s about the double standard that exists within the state Department of Corrections management and her case just happens to illustrate the point very well. If rank-and-file employees were reprimanded three times they’d likely be let go, yet because a manager is reprimanded three times it’s acceptable? Until the department can show that it’s serious about reforming their agency, the reality is that the double standard culture will continue to exist in one form or another.