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Corrections secretary says he will ‘reassign’ Stewart after ethics report

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Sep. 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
September 9, 2011 4:28 pm

Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said today he would “reassign” Communications Director Belinda Stewart as an investigation proceeds into her work for nonprofit groups on state’s dime.

Warner said he would also rewrite agency policies, beef up ethics training and suspend all use of state resources on three nonprofits that have special dispensation under DOC rules.

The Executive Ethics Board today found cause to believe Stewart committed violations of state ethics laws. The board’s report is above. Key findings:

  • Stewart “may have violated ethics laws when she used state resources including her time, her staff’s time, state computers, state vehicles and the state electronic mail system far in excess of the de minimis (negligible) use rule to further the agenda of” three nonprofits.
  • Stewart drove state vehicles to prisons in Belfair and to Eastern Washington to teach classes for DOC employees on behalf of her nonprofit, the National Association of Women in Criminal Justice. She also drove state cars to Seattle or Tacoma at least four times for meetings of another group, the Faith Based Re-Entry Coalition. 
  • Her official calendar recorded her spending 73 hours of state time doing work for the faith-based group, 42 hours on work for NAWCJ and 50 hours on behalf of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice.
  • She may have violated ethics laws when she used state time and her state computer to prepare materials for her outside employment as an instructor for the National Institute of Corrections. She took annual leave to teach the institute’s “new wardens” class.
  • Stewart also may have violated ethics laws when she used her position to hire four people she knew from her church to work at a retirement dinner for a DOC official at a mansion in Tumwater. She paid them $200 for directing people where to sit and cleaning up afterward, using money that had been collected from DOC employees for the dinner and a gift for the retiring official.
  • Investigators didn’t find evidence that Stewart benefited financially from the nonprofit activities. They didn’t see evidence Stewart used her private company, “Ms. B’s Catering,” to cater any DOC events. However, the money for the cleanup crew passed through a catering company called “B Caterer.”
  • Stewart helped write DOC policies dealing with use of state resources. The policies got a rewrite after Stewart’s nonprofit work came under scrutiny. During the revisions, Stewart complained in an e-mail that one proposed rule would “basically cease the existence of several organizations.” Then-Secretary Eldon Vail responded that the “next step is probably to ask Belinda for alternate language,” and a new rule was crafted that specifically exempted work on behalf of NAWCJ, NABCJ and a third nonprofit.
  • Any penalty issued should be greater than $500, the board decided.

I have a query in to DOC for details of Stewart’s transfer, and to Stewart herself — but she has declined comment in the past.

Here’s DOC’s full release:

DOC Responds to Executive Ethics Board Findings

OLYMPIA – The Department of Corrections will be taking several steps following today’s release of a preliminary report by the state Executive Ethics Board which has found reasonable cause to believe agency staff violated state ethics laws.

“We received the findings of the board today and plan to review them carefully,” said Bernie Warner, Secretary of the Department of Corrections. “However, in reviewing the information already provided to the Executive Ethics Board for their report, my staff found issues which I can, and will, address immediately to ensure the Department adheres to state ethics laws.”

Staff named in the preliminary report have 30 days to respond to the allegations. However, beginning immediately, the Department will:

  • Review the DOC Use of State Resources policy, to ensure it does not authorize the use of state resources beyond the limits of the state ethics laws. The Department will work with the Executive Ethics Board staff to revise the policy where appropriate and ask the Board to approve the revised policy to ensure it meets their standards.
  • Review the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreements with three non-profit organizations including:
  • o The National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice
  • o The National Association of Women in Criminal Justice
  • o The Washington Corrections Association
  • While these organizations promote diversity and provide professional, industry-specific training to staff, they are outside organizations and have been notified that no state resources will be used to support them until a review of the MOUs occurs. Direct the DOC Ethics Advisor to work with the state Ethics Board in developing an ethics training program for Department managers and additional ethics information materials for all DOC employees. Reassign Ms. Belinda D. Stewart, Communications and Outreach Director, during the course of the investigation.
  • Direct the DOC Ethics Advisor to work with the state Ethics Board in developing an ethics training program for Department managers and additional ethics information materials for all DOC employees. Reassign Ms. Belinda D. Stewart, Communications and Outreach Director, during the course of the investigation.

In addition to these actions, Melanie De Leon, executive director of the state Executive Ethics Board, will meet with the DOC extended leadership team Sept. 13 to review the provisions of the state ethics laws.

“We will continue to cooperate fully with the Executive Ethics Board during the remaining phases of this investigation and evaluate our policies and practices to ensure they comply with state ethics laws,” Secretary Warner said. “We, as a Department, know we cannot take the public trust for granted and are committed to earning and maintaining it.”

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