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WA DOC Whistleblowers Speak Out: Is Anyone Listening?

Hollywood has glamorized whistleblowers as selfless, dedicated employees with the public interest at heart. It has also implied that when government or corporate employees expose wrongdoing there is someone there to investigate their claims. A veteran investigative journalist writing for the American Journalism Review, who has worked with whistleblowers on a regular basis, said the reality is usually far different. He described the typical whistleblower as an employee with personal axes to grind who goes public to expose wrongdoing only to settle an unrelated dispute or grievance.

For the past two years, PLN has investigated all substantiated whistleblower complaints filed by Washington Department of Corrections employees with the state Auditor's office. A review of several thousands of pages of documents reveals a cozy but dysfunctional system where little investigation of state malfeasance takes place, and even when wrongdoing is found, nothing is done about it.

Washington, like most states, assigns to the state auditor the task of investigating whistleblower allegations filed against state agencies. It is an elected, partisan office. Washington has had Democratic governors since 1984. Brian Sonntag has been state auditor since 1992 and was recently elected to a third term in office. Sonntag is also a Democrat. While the auditor's office is an independent state agency there seems to be little incentive for the auditor's office to rock the boat by ferreting out wrongdoing among executive branch employees or, once having unearthed wrongdoing, to do much about it. As a routine practice, the auditor's office first sends drafts of its reports to the DOC (and presumably other state agencies as well) for comment and "editing" before it releases its own final report.

In some cases, the auditors even sent the whistleblower complaint to the DOC to investigate itself and then report the results back to the auditor's office. Perhaps not surprisingly, the DOC invariably failed to substantiate whistleblower claims of malfeasance. While the identity of the whistleblower must be kept confidential by law (none of the whistleblower's identities were revealed to PLN), it appears that when the auditor's office gives the DOC a whistleblower's complaint to investigate, the identity of the whistleblower is also disclosed to the DOC.

Two examples well illustrate the auditor's "investigative process." In complaint 99-114, a whistleblower claimed that Dianne Doonan, then the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) business manager, (she has since been promoted to the position of Correctional Program Manager and works in DOC headquarters in Olympia), was directing her employees to falsify DOC monthly overtime reports by recording less overtime than was actually worked, and that overtime was improperly calculated. Employees were still paid the time they worked; the reports were doctored to make the prison seem more efficient than it was.

Sonntag sent the allegations to DOC secretary Joseph Lehman on January 27, 1999, and asked him to investigate the matter. DOC business manager Tom Georg was assigned to investigate the matter. Georg reviewed MICC payroll documents, interviewed Doonan, and several other MICC business office employees, who all denied any wrongdoing. That was apparently the end of the DOC's "investigation".

On February 25, 1999, Cindy Yates, head of the DOC's Office of Administrative Services, responded to the state auditor's office claiming that no corroborating evidence could be found for any of the allegations. The DOC's response to the allegation that Doonan was directing her employees to falsify the DOC monthly overtime report by recording less overtime than was worked met with this response: "There is not an exact procedure that is followed in the creation of this report at the local level. Business managers are expected to work with the report to get it right." Yates did not clarify if "working with the report" would include doctoring the figures until they achieved the desired result.

However, when Sandy Miller, an investigator with the auditor's office reviewed Yate's response and Georg's "investigation" and consulted with the whistleblower, she decided to look into the matter further. Miller was able to confirm that two MICC employees had, in fact, been overpaid and in another, the widow of a deceased employee was improperly advanced $650.84 over the $2,500 allowed by state law. Confronted with Miller's conclusions, Doonan and Yates both agreed that Washington state law had in fact, been violated. The falsified overtime allegation was not substantiated because apparently no one outside the DOC can understand, or explain, the process. Then MICC superintendent Belinda Stewart also agreed with the results this time. Having been found to violate state law Doonan was promoted out of the MICC business office for her malfeascence.

Miller's final notes in her report state that the whistleblower "was also dissatisfied that we had originally referred the assertions to the DOC to conduct the investigation and felt that it was unreasonable to allow DOC to investigate themselves." That was the end of that investigation.

The other example of the auditor's less than vigorous investigative techniques comes from the Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) food factory. In its August 1997, issue PLN reported the storm of controversy at the AHCC food factory near Spokane. An internal audit by the DOC, prompted by an investigation by the Department of Health, found that spoiled meat and chicken was processed into meals served to Washington prisoners statewide as well as to Meals on Wheels programs across Washington. When reporters for the Spokesman Review of Spokane brought this to the auditor's attention, Sonntag promised a "full investigation" of the food factory. And that was the end of it.

When PLN obtained Sonntagg's four-page report on the AHCC food factory it appeared that little had been investigated. The auditor's report stated only that the food factory needed some improvement in its inventory mechanisms. Nothing was said about the rotten food, attempts to cover it up, falsification of food expiration dates, sabotage of food preparation by DOC staff and similar incidents reported by the Dept. of Health and DOC as well as Spokesman Review. Which begs the question, what does the auditor's office investigate?

The failings and inadequacies of Washington's whistleblowing process seems to be of little concern to anyone in a position to effect change, including the corporate media, thus, the status quo continues. This situation illustrates the virtually complete lack of oversight, by anyone, over the DOC. Especially troubling is the fact that even when the auditor's office did find violations of state law, invariably it did nothing.

In a five year, period the auditor's office substantiated 18 whistleblower cases involving the Washington DOC. This includes employees at the Penitentiary in Walla Walla storing Ibuprofen in an unlocked locker and dispensing them to prisoners; employees using state vehicles to travel between employee parking lots and job sites; Cedar Creek Corrections Center not having a current emergency response plan; Gary Wheelock, a lieutenant at the Washington State Reformatory was practicing as an investment advisor without a license; two employees were required to use unsafe gas masks; the Washington State Penitentiary instructed employees to report all whistleblower complaints to the DOC, thus circumventing the confidentiality provisions of the whistleblower act; the Washington Corrections Center for Women prescribed and paid for over the counter skin care lotions for prisoners rather than requiring the prisoners to buy them; Cedar Creek did not comply with state laws when escorting prisoners away from the prison and Olympic Corrections Center obtained building materials from the Department of Natural Resources and did not pay for them.

The most noteworthy of the Auditor's substantiated whistleblowing investigations between 1995 and 2000 are:

CBCC Guard Tries to Bribe Supervisor With Beer:

On April 1, 1999, a Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) guard named Schuur brought a six pack of Rainier beer into the prison and gave it to Sgt. Richard Foulks in an attempt to get a good employee evaluation. Schuur and the beer were removed from the prison. Lt. Brian McPherson witnessed the incident. The Washington State Patrol conducted a criminal investigation of the incident but no criminal charges were filed because no criminal law prohibits bringing alcohol into a prison in Washington. The DOC suspended Schuur for three weeks and gave him a letter of reprimand. Auditor Case No. 99-153.

Chehalis Football Pool:

In December 1998, a whistleblower reported that staff in the DOC's Office of Correctional Operations (OCO) Chehalis office was using state computers to maintain a football pool. Community corrections officer Grant Childers was also selling Avon products to his co-workers on state time. The auditor's office held the football pool violated state law but only "recommended" that the DOC remove the football pool program from its computers and that the employees involved receive ethics training. Some 16 OCO employees participated in the pool, which was defended as being "good for morale."

A February 1999, letter from Brian Sonntag to DOC secretary Joseph Lehman illustrates the cozy nature of auditor "investigations". Sonntag provided Lehman with a draft copy of the investigation for comment, noting that as a non-final report it was not subject to public disclosure. In asking for Lehman's response, Sonntag states: "Where we agree with you that a comment should be changed or deleted, we will edit the final report accordingly. We will also edit your response to eliminate any reference to the resolved items." This effectively insulates the whistleblowing process from any type of outside scrutiny. Auditor File No. 99-113.

Superintendent Peddles Phone Services:

On December 11, 1997, a whistleblower reported that Marlin "Spike" Holden, the superintendent at the Olympic Corrections Center (OCC), a prison camp in Forks, was using his office and position to sell long distance phone services for a company named Excel. Holden advertised his services in a local newspaper. The auditor's office confirmed that Holden was soliciting his subordinates for business while at work, on state time. This violated state laws on employee use of state time and ethics rules as well as DOC policies on outside employment. The auditor reported Holden's activities to the state ethics board. Ultimately, neither the DOC nor the auditor's

Whistleblower (continued)

office took any action because Holden retired shortly after the whistleblower complaint was confirmed. Perhaps to devote himself full time to selling phone services. Auditor Case No. 98-86 and 98-90.

Improper Use of Criminal Computers:

In 1994 a whistleblower reported that Washington State Penitentiary records employees Sue Schuler, Shirley Conrad and Jobeth Gradwohl were using an FBI owned Teletype at the prison for personal reasons. Namely, trying to track down Gradwahl's former son in law, Scott Castlin. Apparently, this was an ongoing event as the same employees were using their access to state and federal criminal histories to do background checks on their relatives' boyfriends, lovers, etc. Then WSP superintendent Tana Wood said the matter was resolved by counseling Gradwohl not to use the ACCESS/WASIC terminal for her own personal purposes. The whistleblower later complained he/ she was denied promotions due to the whistleblowing. Auditor's Case No. 99-08.

MICC Dumps Toxic Waste in Marine Waters:

In 1995 the auditor's office confirmed that the DOC at McNeil Island Corrections Center was dumping copper based paint chips, waste water oil and other toxic solvents directly into Puget Sound waters in violation of state water laws. The Department of Ecology investigated and found that the DOC had no boatyard permit for the boatyard operation. The DOC said it would stop dumping the chemicals into the water. Auditor's Case No. 96-06.

AHCC Lack of Building Permits:

The auditor's office confirmed that construction work had proceeded at the Airway Heights Corrections Center without first obtaining electrical and other construction permits. As previously reported in PLN, despite being opened in 1994, AHCC is poorly built and suffers from numerous design defects and shoddy construction, which has resulted in extensive repairs by the DOC. The Dept. of Labor and Industries has repeatedly cited the prison for its state law violations. The auditor's office approved letting L&I deal with AHCC to inspect past electrical work done without permits and the DOC promised to follow state law in the future. Auditor Case No. 99-121.

Biannual statewide audits of the DOC from 1997-1999 show that the auditor's office conducts limited audits of the DOC to ensure it is complying with state laws. The only significant shortcoming identified by the auditor's office is that the DOC has no meaningful inventory of its physical assets, which means it cannot track or account for its assets. MICC and the Monroe Correctional Complex were identified as being especially lax in these areas. Since the DOC thinks it has over $50 million in furnishings and equipment, the amount is not insubstantial. A lack of meaningful inventory means employees can steal to their heart's content and the state wouldn't even know it.

So far the legislature and corporate media are willfully oblivious to the auditor's perfunctory performance and sweetheart "investigations" of state agencies.

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