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Ethics investigation targets Department of Corrections official

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on June 16, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
June 16, 2011 7:42 pm

UPDATE 7:40 p.m.:

An internal investigation at the state Department of Corrections is focused on whether an administrator broke ethics laws by devoting state time and employees to her work on behalf of nonprofit groups.

At least five nonprofits led or co-led by Belinda Stewart reported in records filed with the state that they share their official address with DOC headquarters on Tumwater’s Linderson Way.

An ethics complaint by state Sen. Mike Carrell alleges Stewart, the agency’s communications and outreach director, essentially ran those and other groups from her office, with help from state computers, vehicles and employees who worked for her.

The March complaint by Carrell, a Lakewood Republican, documents at least 593 hours that one graphics technician allegedly worked over three years in connection with the nonprofits while on the job. Others under her direction also helped, he said, and money was raised for the groups at the office.

“It is a blatant use of state resources to support outside businesses and solicit funds in direct violation of DOC’s own policies at the time,” Carrell said in the complaint.

His is one of three ethics complaints filed against Stewart with the Executive Ethics Board that has the power to fine state workers. The short-staffed board asked the Department of Corrections to look into it internally and report back on its findings.

“We’re on the final days of completing it,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said today, adding what he cautioned was a preliminary conclusion: “From a non-thorough look, I haven’t seen a smoking gun at this point. I have seen someone trying to work to support staff in the agency.”

One group led by Stewart, the Association of Women in Criminal Justice, probably has “dozens” of members in the Corrections Department, Vail said.

The two-year-old group says it awards scholarships to criminal justice students. It created a scholarship in honor of slain Lakewood police officer Tina Griswold after getting permission from her family to use Griswold’s name, and held events like a 5K run to raise money. But the family later withdrew its permission and created its own scholarship fund under Griswold’s name, Stewart wrote on the website in February.

“There has been a lot of information disseminated about the integrity of the association that is simply not true,” wrote Stewart, who didn’t return a phone message at her office Thursday afternoon. “… I would ask you to make judgments of this organization based on what you know personally, not on what other people tell you.”

Griswold’s sister said the family pulled out over concerns about the group’s mission, its finances and what it had learned about the nonprofit doing business on state time.

“We decided as a family we did not want to be part of that,” Tammy DeLong Gipe said. That’s not what my sister was about and that’s not what we’re about.”

Vail sees the nonprofits as important enough to merit some use of staff time.

Weeks after the first ethics complaint, Vail signed a document defining what’s appropriate for Corrections employees involved with the National Association of Women in Criminal Justice.

Vail and Stewart, its president, entered into a “memorandum of understanding” in March, allowing employees with the group to make infrequent use of DOC facilities and computers. Workers can also take administrative leave while planning and attending the group’s training conferences, like one its website said was to be held Thursday at the Thurston County Fairgrounds.

Agreements like the one DOC signed with the group were also signed with the state chapter of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, for which Stewart is the registered agent, and another nonprofit that’s not part of the probe, the Washington Correctional Association.

Around the same time, the department’s ethics rules on use of state resources went through a rewrite.

Vail said the groups give staff access to important training, as long as there is oversight to “make sure they’re not doing anything stupid.”

Carrell sees “a concerted effort by Ms. Stewart to ‘grandfather in’ her private business activities to try to make them appropriate within DOC policies, many years after much of the unethical behavior took place,” he said in his complaint — even though he said Stewart’s nonprofit work was too frequent to be allowed even under the newer, looser standards.

He said he has no problem with the groups’ work. “The problem is if it’s being done on DOC time, using DOC personnel and DOC equipment,” he said.

Stewart made $102,000 in 2009, according to the most recent state salaries report.

Before taking her current job, she led at least three prisons, including McNeil Island Corrections Center. While superintendent at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, she was disciplined for disobeying an order not to conduct private business with DOC staff.

Then-Secretary Harold Clarke reprimanded her for insubordination in a 2005 letter obtained by Carrell, which says she sold Avon products to her employees.

Vail said he takes into account past actions when deciding on discipline. He could make that call either after the internal probe wraps up, due June 30, or after the ethics board rules.

Ethics board staff will consider DOC’s findings and report to the board, which is likely to make a decision on whether Stewart has violated the law at its September meeting, executive director Melanie de Leon said.

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