The Senate Law and Justice Committee will issue two subpoenas to the Department of Corrections and the Governor’s office for records related to the mistaken early release of 3,200 prisoners. This comes after the Rules Committee approved a resolution authorizing subpoena powers on a 13-7 vote on Tuesday evening. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen signed the subpoenas.
The error was a result of a coding miscalculation in the DOC electronic records system dating back to 2002. Gov. Jay Inslee has hired two retired federal prosecutors to conduct an independent investigation into why the problem wasn’t fixed sooner.
At a meeting of the Senate Law and Justice Committee earlier Tuesday, Republican chair Sen. Mike Padden urged members to support the resolution that was sent to the Rules Committee. He said the governor has an obligation to investigate, but “that doesn’t mean we have to defer to the governor.”
“We as legislators have an independent obligation separate from the governor,” he said. “We are a co-equal branch of the government.”
Padden said the committee’s investigation would differ from the governor’s because it would be a public process with people speaking under oath. He said the subpoenas would initially only seek documents related to the error, but it could later compel witnesses to testify.
Republican Vice Chair Sen. Steve O’Ban was critical of the governor’s investigators, saying they do not plan to record interviews with DOC employees.
“This is why we need public testimony to establish those facts so that those employees are on record and they can’t later change their view,” he said.
O’Ban said he asked the investigators if requesting documents and conducting a review would interfere with their investigation, and they said no.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D–Seattle, voted against the committee resolution, saying that subpoena powers should be used sparingly and only when necessary.
“I believe that the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections have cooperated substantially with us and there’s no reason to believe that is about to stop,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen said he’s concerned that using subpoena power will impede the governor’s investigation.
“I’m worried that moving forward with this process earlier then when given the results of the investigation, that there’s the potential to cause the witnesses to believe they need to lawyer up and be less forthcoming,” he said.
Sen. David Frockt, D–Seattle, also voted against the resolution. He expressed confidence in the governor’s investigation and said it should completed during the legislative session.
“I think that once this investigation is complete, that will give us a window into what actually transpired,” Frockt said. “I think that our legislative oversight power can best be exercised subsequent to the investigation.”
Republican Sen. Pam Roach said in 27 sessions with the Legislature, “I have never seen this done before.” She said she believes it’s a process that’s important for Washingtonians to see.
“This is a part of our system that allows the state of Washington to actually provide checks and balances,” she said.
Sen. Kirk Pearson, R–Monroe, also supported the resolution, saying in the 16 years that he’s been in office there have been five DOC secretaries. It’s time to take a good look at the DOC, he said.
“Transparency makes for good government,” he said.
The subpoenas will be sent to the Governor’s office and DOC this week. Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith released a statement after the resolution passed saying their office will continue to provide documents.
“The fact is, Senate Republicans are planning to issue subpoenas for the exact same documents we’re already processing and providing to them from earlier requests,” she said. “There is no information to be gained through a subpoena that isn’t already available to them through normal public records procedures.”