Politics & Government

Ethics inquiries trail DOC leader

The state Department of Corrections says it will finish its ethics investigation of an administrator this week, but it already has looked into similar allegations and found no cause for alarm.

Belinda Stewart is being investigated after complaints alleging she ran nonprofits out of DOC headquarters. Stewart, who makes $102,000 as communications director, didn’t return a reporter’s phone calls.

A report this winter concluded she was on the clock when she attended conferences of the nonprofit she runs, the National Association of Women in Criminal Justice, and when she and the group provided free training to corrections staff members.

That activity was OK because it benefited the agency, according to the report obtained by The News Tribune.

Stewart has faced previous investigations for mixing work and private life – and she survived.

A state auditor’s report from 2005, when Stewart led the women’s prison near Purdy, found she used state money to fly her sister to Washington state and paid her $3,000 to give motivational speeches to inmates.

Then-Secretary Harold Clarke said it created “the perception of unethical behavior.”

He wrote her a letter of reprimand – not just for that episode, but for disobeying orders not to fill two other jobs and not to sell Avon products to staff members at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

“Belinda Stewart, if she gets in trouble, nothing ever happens to her,” said Rory Pederson, a photographer and videographer who worked for Stewart until she eliminated his job last year. “Next thing you know, she gets a big promotion. So it’s just like she can do whatever she wants.”

Pederson said workers in the communications office spent much of their time on duties for outside groups under Stewart’s direction.

Similar allegations were aired this winter after the state auditor received a whistleblower complaint – one of many that Auditor Brian Sonntag’s office receives, without the money to handle all of them, according to a spokeswoman. That’s why the office forwarded the complaint to the Corrections Department.

Internal auditor Kathy Smith rejected the accusations after reviewing staff members’ emails and calendars. Only one was backed up as problematic, and it was deemed an isolated occurence: Stewart spending an hour and a half of her work day at a meeting of her nonprofit.

“Conferences and seminars sponsored by nonprofit professional organizations provide an opportunity for staff to improve their knowledge of criminal justice issues, stay current with criminal justice events, and to benefit by networking with other criminal justice professionals,” Smith concluded.

Sen. Mike Carrell, the Lakewood Republican who filed one of the current ethics complaints, said that’s beside the point.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a good thing that these nonprofits exist,” he said. “The problem is they’ve extensively used state resources and personnel.”

His complaint went to the Executive Ethics Board, another agency that gets more work than it can handle. So it, too, handed the complaint to the Corrections Department. Smith is again investigating.

Carrell says probes shouldn’t be done in-house when top management is involved.

By the time Carrell’s complaint landed at the Corrections Department, the agency’s policies had been changed to explicitly acknowledge Stewart’s group and a couple of others as partners that deserved some small use of staff members’ time.

Wanda McRae, a leader in the Women in Criminal Justice group and superintendent of the women’s prison in Belfair, said employees benefit from the training the group provides.

“Basically we’re about educating women, especially women in criminal justice, because we’re few in number,” she said.

By Thursday, the Corrections Department plans to turn its latest investigation over to the ethics board, which expects to decide by September if laws were violated.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826