The head of the state’s prisons agency says he will temporarily “reassign” an administrator, Belinda Stewart, after outside investigators found cause to believe she broke ethics laws by doing work for nonprofits on the state’s dime.
After emerging from a closed-door meeting Friday morning, the state Executive Ethics Board voted 3-0 to declare there is reasonable cause to believe ethics violations were committed that warrant a fine of more than $500, a threshold for the board.
Investigators will now seek a response from Stewart, communications director for the Department of Corrections, to their 26-page report, and will schedule a hearing in her case.
State Sen. Mike Carrell sent a letter to Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner after the vote, asking him to fire Stewart.
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“I would hope that he would be using this as a reason to clean house,” said Carrell, a Lakewood Republican who filed one of three ethics complaints against Stewart. “This didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was condoned by people up the food chain.”
The ethics board has the authority to fine Stewart but not to dismiss her.
Warner said in a statement that he would rewrite agency policies, beef up ethics training and suspend all use of state resources on three nonprofits that received special dispensation under a recent rewrite of DOC rules. He didn’t elaborate on details of Stewart’s new assignment, and inquiries to DOC weren’t immediately answered.
Stewart was out of the office Friday and didn’t respond to an email sent to her work address.
The ethics board’s report suggests Stewart helped rewrite DOC policies on use of state resources after her activities came under scrutiny.
During the revisions, Stewart complained in an email that one proposed rule would “basically cease the existence of several organizations,” investigators said. 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 for three nonprofits.
Warner said the groups – the National Association of Women in Criminal Justice, run by Stewart, the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice that she helped with, and the Washington Corrections Association, which was not tied to her – “promote diversity and provide professional, industry-specific training to staff.” But he said he would remove the groups from access to state resources until a review is finished.
“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,” Warner said in a statement. “We, as a department, know we cannot take the public trust for granted and are committed to earning and maintaining it.”
The family of slain Lakewood officer Tina Griswold cheered the investigation’s step forward. The family agreed Women in Criminal Justice could raise money for a scholarship in Griswold’s memory, but later backed out and complained to state officials about the use of government resources.
“Tina’s family feels vindicated for having initiated the complaint,” said the family’s attorney Nelson Fraley.
The report said 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” nonprofits.
Other key findings of the report:
• Stewart drove state vehicles to prisons in Belfair and Eastern Washington to teach classes for DOC employees as part of her Women in Criminal Justice group. She also drove state cars to Seattle or Tacoma at least four times for meetings of another group she led, the Faith Based Re-Entry Coalition.
• She used state time and her state computer to prepare materials for her outside employment as an instructor for the National Institute of Corrections.
• Stewart used her position to hire four people she knew from her church to work at a retirement dinner for a DOC employee. She paid them $200 out of the $30-per-plate admission charge.