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Originally published December 15, 2012 at 8:07 PM | Page modified December 17, 2012 at 8:42 AM

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Troubles persist on predator island

Numerous interviews and hundreds of pages of public records tell a story of chronic misconduct by some employees at the state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, including suspected abuse of overtime and paid leave that may have involved as many as 85 workers.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The state's $48 million Special Commitment Center, which detains and treats Washington's most dangerous sex offenders, has been plagued by costly absenteeism, employee fraud and flawed employment screening, The Seattle Times has found.

Relying on hundreds of pages of recently obtained public records and numerous interviews, The Times learned of suspected abuse of overtime and paid leave that may have involved as many as 85 employees at the Special Commitment Center (SCC) on McNeil Island, near Tacoma.

Two employees alone were paid $32,000 in overtime for work never performed, documents show.

Referring to several specific cases, former SCC superintendent Kelly Cunningham said: "They got paid for work they didn't do — that's theft of state resources."

So far, none has been punished for any payroll infractions because a state Auditor's Office investigation into the matter — after nearly two and a half years — is still not completed.

The SCC, which has 371 employees, has had a troubled history with staff at the remote location. In comparison to employees in the state's prison system, workers at the McNeil Island facility have been disciplined for misconduct this year at a rate four times higher.

Since January, the SCC has fired eight employees, suspended four and slapped 26 others with letters of reprimand or other discipline for misconduct unrelated to the auditor's probe. Among those fired: a high-ranking manager who turned in a made-up investigative report, staffers accused of viewing pornography on their work computers, and two employees who forged doctor's notes to cover up their absenteeism.

Earlier this year, The Times' four-part series "Price of Protection" revealed the state had wasted millions of dollars because of lack of oversight, unchecked defense costs and delayed commitment trials. The state spends about $170,000 a year for each of the 297 sex offenders on McNeil Island.

The SCC has also been marred by a long-running federal probe into illegal drugs and child pornography that resulted in employees and sex offenders being sent to prison. Federal agents continue to investigate contraband entering the facility.

Evidence of abuses

Chronic problems at the SCC came into sharper focus in 2009, when its new superintendent, Cunningham, was asked to cut staff and expenses as the state budget crisis peaked. As he looked for ways to save money, he was surprised to see the center paying about $150,000 a month in overtime.

As he and managers investigated, they found myriad payroll and other problems.

Meanwhile, in a Jan. 8, 2010, memo, he warned the staff they would face stiff discipline if they abused policies on attendance and leave.

Comparing time sheets and sick-leave slips with shift reports and security-card readers, they found that more than one-fifth of the SCC staff had inconsistencies in their attendance, according to an internal report obtained by The Times through a public-records request.

"There may be a systemic, focused attempt by some employees to defraud the state," Cunningham wrote in the report to leaders at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which oversees the center for sexually violent predators.

Employees were getting paid for hours in which they were never even on the island or had left early, based on shift reports, logs and card readers, Cunningham said in an interview.

He also believed some employees had developed a scheme in which one would call in sick so another would get paid overtime to cover the shift, and then they'd switch roles and do it again.

He said he found cases where a supervisor's name "had been forged" on overtime slips. "There were instances where we'd have a supervisor and subordinate in cahoots."

Others never filled out slips for being sick, so their total leave time was never reduced, he said.

Believing the conduct might be criminal, Cunningham said he asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate, but it declined, saying a suspected payroll scheme should go to the state auditor. In the summer of 2010, he submitted a detailed report to the Auditor's Office, which opened its own investigation.

The report included blatant examples of attendance abuse, Cunningham said. He believed all his review needed was a "bow on it."

But the agency's investigation has lingered for two and half years.

State Auditor's Office Director of Special Investigations Jim Brittain admits the agency hasn't been actively pursuing the investigation for the past two and half years, and that other cases were given priority.

A lack of resources and shifting the work to a new investigator midstream has turned the SCC case into one of the longest-running active investigations in the Auditor's Office, Brittain said. He said the case will be finished by the end of January.

If the Auditor's Office finds criminal activity, it will refer its conclusions to the state Attorney General's Office for any criminal charges and attempt to recoup state money.

Cunningham, who left the SCC in August to become a deputy director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he was frustrated the Auditor's Office didn't finish its investigation before he transferred.

Had he known the payroll investigation was going to take years, Cunningham said he would have kept it in-house and meted out discipline directly.

When employees abuse leave time, they create hardships and morale problems for the staffers who have to work mandatory overtime to cover the shifts, Cunningham said. And it forces the SCC to spend additional tax dollars on overtime.

Because there is an active investigation into the allegations by another state agency, no one has been disciplined, said Don Gauntz, SCC's interim superintendent. Meanwhile, the SCC has done training to address attendance problems, he said.

As for why employees would lie on their time sheets, Gauntz said, "you are asking why people steal, and the obvious answer is money."

Firings over sick leave

Despite Cunningham's stern warning letter, other employees tried to game the system.

For example, Stanislaus Zon, who monitored offenders, missed dozens of days of work, informing supervisors that at times he had been sick. Asked to supply proof, he fabricated at least four doctor's notes to explain some of those missing days, according to records of the State Patrol, which had been referred the Zon case by the SCC for investigation.

"Zon indicated he got the idea of altering the medical clearance document from a co-worker," records show. "Zon said if he knew he would keep his job he may come forward with the name of the employee."

When the Patrol said it couldn't negotiate his employment with the SCC, he refused to implicate anyone. The SCC fired the six-year employee Aug. 23.

Another employee, Kyle Boylan, was also fired after he submitted fraudulent doctor's notes to justify time off in 2009 and 2010. He denied forging the documents, claiming a staffer or sex offender could have set him up, according to state records.

Each had jobs paying about $40,000 a year. The Pierce County Prosecutor's Office hasn't decided whether to charge Zon and has declined to charge Boylan.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Management troubles

Managers also contributed to waste and abuse at the SCC. Walter Weinberg, a program area manager, signed off on more than one year of time sheets for a man who took time off for knee surgery in 2007 but didn't return to work.

Melvin Walden kept cashing his checks until someone else finally noticed he was AWOL. Well before then, the SCC had hired someone to replace him, records show.

Walden, who left the center in 2011, told The Times, "I wasn't trying to beat them out of anything."

He said he still owes the state $28,000, and pays $200 a month to reimburse it.

No discipline was brought against Weinberg and another supervisor involved, Gauntz said, because the case had lingered too long to do so.

Weinberg, a seven-year veteran at the center, supervised a large team of employees and several residential units. He also was required to investigate allegations of staff misconduct.

In early 2011, after being asked to look into complaints about an employee's temper and repeated use of verbal obscenities, Weinberg submitted a report to Cunningham, saying he interviewed three employees.

In fact, he had not. His bogus report forced an investigator to conduct an expanded investigation into the employee's actions and into Weinberg's.

"Numerous staff continued to suffer unnecessary verbal obscenities due to your negligent investigative work," Cunningham told him in a March 12 dismissal letter. "Your decision to take shortcuts and provide me an incomplete and false investigative report caused me to make a decision based on inaccurate information. Your decision had a tremendous impact on staff and destroys an already fragile trust between staff and management."

Weinberg later told top management he was "embarrassed and humiliated" but didn't think he deserved to be fired, according to SCC records.

He told The Times he had been inundated with complaints about employee misconduct lodged either by the sex offenders or employees.

"The program managers were being assigned six investigations per week, and there was a lot of stress and pressure to get them done in a timely manner," Weinberg said. "Seems like we never had a real period of stability. Things were always in flux."

Porn problems

One of the top reasons staffers get in trouble is for misusing work computers, including by viewing pornography, records show. Such misconduct can be particularly corrosive and destabilizing at the commitment center, where scores of offenders are treated for sexual deviance.

Administrators have done little over the years to make pornography unavailable to staff.

After the fact, however, the SCC did discipline 16 employees in 2012 for surfing the Internet while on the job, including firing two people for viewing pornographic images.

When officials discovered Sammie Neely had repeatedly viewed a pornographic site, they fired him on Sept. 20, citing DSHS' zero-tolerance policy. Last month, after Neely grieved the termination through his union, the SCC backed off. It agreed to remove the termination letter and investigative report from Neely's personnel file, provide a neutral job reference and let him resign, according to the settlement agreement.

Neely couldn't be reached for comment.

Gauntz, who signed the settlement, wouldn't comment except to say "we had an acceptable outcome."

Jamele Anderson, a supervisor, was accused of viewing more than 100 pornographic images at work in March 2010 and later fired.

In an appeal, Anderson argued that he had left his password under his phone and that others must have used it.

An arbitrator ruled in Anderson's favor in September, stating it was possible others had access to his computer. He got his job back.

Within the next few months, Gauntz said, the center will install blocker software on about 50 computers to limit Internet access. He said the delay was caused by lack of resources and union negotiations over the change in workplace environment.

Backgrounds unchecked

Anderson's case also illustrates the commitment center's sometimes shoddy promotion practices.

When he was promoted in 2007 to residential-area manager, Anderson was required to undergo a criminal-background check by the SCC. However, it didn't pick up that he had been charged with theft and forgery and pleaded guilty in November 2005 to obstructing a law-enforcement officer. He was placed on two years of probation, Pierce County court records show. He didn't tell the SCC about the matter, as required, nor has he paid $6,004 in fines and restitution, records show. The center is investigating.

In another case, Thomas Lovell, who monitored sex offenders at McNeil Island, was promoted to psychology associate, claiming he had a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Arizona State University and a master's degree in social work from Kaplan University. But the SCC never checked his credentials.

For months he provided therapy to the state's worst sex offenders before the center discovered in 2010 he had nothing but a high-school diploma. He blamed his charade on pressing marital and financial problems, records show.

He now works as a correctional officer for the state Department of Corrections.

Another employee who slipped through the cracks with his criminal record was Anthony Golder, a residential rehabilitation counselor. He was arrested for driving under the influence in 2010 and his license was later suspended.

Golder, who was hired in 2004, has previously been disciplined for sleeping on the job, making false statements, falsifying log books and not performing periodic security checks.

While he was under investigation for sleeping during his graveyard shift, Golder said, the SCC put him on paid "home assignment" for more than six months in 2009.

"I had to stand around the house from eight to four, if they needed me," he said.

The SCC, which finally suspended him for three days, has since done away with the lengthy "home assignments."

Golder never did alert the center about his DUI arrest. As a result, for over a year he drove a state vehicle to transport SCC residents to and from appointments off McNeil Island 106 times. Without a valid license, he exposed the state to possible legal peril if an accident occurred.

When the SCC learned of Golder's DUI conviction in December 2011, it suspended him for three days without pay and moved him into a job that didn't require a driver's license.

Gauntz, the interim head, said the center has been cracking down on staff misconduct but it still has more work to do.

"I believe what's on my plate and (the) next CEO's is to continue down this path of increased accountability," he said. "You don't correct a culture overnight."

Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Christinesea. Staff researchers Miyoko Wolf and Gene Balk and reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

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