Official fined; state senator wants her fired

jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.comFebruary 27, 2013 

A state ethics board has fined a state Department of Corrections manager after concluding she used state resources on behalf of a federal corrections agency and a nonprofit group formed to help released prison inmates.

A state senator who had filed one of several ethics complaints against Belinda Stewart announced the decision Tuesday and repeated his call for her ouster in a letter to her boss, Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner.

Stewart said she would have to talk to her lawyer about her next move, including a possible appeal, but made clear she has no plans to quietly step aside.

“I’m not perfect,” Stewart said by telephone Tuesday evening, “but the one thing I can tell you is I do not deserve this, and I will not let anybody destroy my career without a fight.”

A communications and outreach director for the agency when the investigation into her nonprofit work began in 2011, Stewart was transferred last fall to new responsibilities over prison visitation, volunteers, and matters of gender and religion.

The Executive Ethics Board fined Stewart $17,000, with $3,600 suspended, according to a copy of the decision Sen. Mike Carrell posted on his legislative website. The Lakewood Republican wrote in an email to constituents that the fine was too lenient.

The board found that Stewart failed to get DOC approval for outside employment as the instructor of a “new warden” class for the federal National Institute of Corrections, with topics such as “ethics and integrity.” It paid $2,800 a year plus $1,200 for expenses.

Stewart took leave from her state job to do the trainings, but investigators found 576 items related to the class stored in an email folder on her work computer.

“These activities involved the use of state resources for the private benefit or gain of Ms. Stewart,” the board wrote.

Stewart said she’s one of a few people in the country selected to teach the warden class.

The board also faulted her for using state resources on a nonprofit she founded called Faith Based Reentry Coalition, which aims to harness religious groups to help released inmates find a place in their communities.

Investigators found her work calendar logged 73 hours devoted to the group’s meetings over more than two years, she used a state car to travel to the meetings, and she assigned employees to work on behalf of the coalition — for example, by having them design more than 50 possible logos for the group.

The board called that work for an “unrelated organization.” Stewart said the group’s mission of making sure released inmates don’t return to prison was directly related to her work, and said the group put together a guide to post-release transition that still sits in her office and helps the agency.

Stewart ran at least two other nonprofits using state resources, but the board saw a connection between those and her state job. It may have helped that the department had given the groups an official stamp of approval under then-Secretary Eldon Vail.

Vail’s successor, Warner, wasn’t immediately available Tuesday evening to comment on Carrell’s letter to him asking that Stewart be fired.

“With the series of problems to which Ms. Stewart’s case has drawn attention,” Carrell wrote, “I believe it is vital that you send a strong message to the department and to the public that state government takes (its) ethics responsibilities and oversight very seriously, whether rank and file or management.”

That drew a strong reaction from Stewart. “I have had a successful career until he decided to go on this campaign,” she said.

She said she has the option of appealing for the board’s reconsideration or to a court.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @Jordan_Schrader Download the Capital Update app for iPad and iPhone for a seven-day free trial.

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service