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Originally published July 9, 2013 at 7:40 PM | Page modified July 9, 2013 at 8:54 PM

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3 firings, 1 demotion overturned in case of prison-guard slaying

In a 54-page decision, an arbitrator found the discipline imposed on the Monroe Reformatory employees after the 2011 slaying of Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl to be too harsh and concluded the state must shoulder part of the blame.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Citing a pattern of institutional complacency at the Monroe Reformatory, an arbitrator has overturned the firings of three state prison officers and the demotion of a sergeant stemming from the slaying of Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl in 2011.

In his July 7 ruling, arbitrator Michael E. Cavanaugh found that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) meted out overly harsh discipline when its own failures contributed to breakdowns.

Cavanaugh concluded in a 54-page decision that the agency only had just cause to issue written reprimands to two of the officers, George Lyons and Charles Maynard, and the sergeant, Christopher Johnson.

He found that nondisciplinary corrective action was more appropriate for a third officer, David Young, who since has had his name changed to Nathan Dahl.

Cavanaugh ordered that the officers be reinstated to their jobs and Johnson restored to the rank of sergeant, and that they be paid lost wages and benefits.

The DOC issued a written statement Tuesday defending its actions, but said it has not decided whether to challenge the arbitrator’s decision in court.

Biendl, 34, the DOC officer of the year in 2008, was not found by fellow officers for nearly two hours after being strangled in the prison chapel on Jan. 29, 2011, with an amplifier cord. Her killer, Byron Scherf, who was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole at the reformatory, was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder in Biendl’s death and sentenced to death May 15.

The DOC, in actions announced in October 2011, concluded that the fired officers lied to investigators about their actions at the time Biendl was killed, and that Dahl was away from a post where he might have seen Scherf enter the chapel.

Johnson was demoted for failure to properly supervise Dahl before and after the killing. Two lieutenants, one of whom was demoted to sergeant, were reprimanded but are not represented by the union that challenged the other actions.

Cavanaugh found that the fired officers had not intentionally provided false statements that were subject to nuance and interpretation, and that Johnson’s lack of supervision amounted to “substandard performance” rather than “actual misconduct.”

In addition, Cavanaugh pointed to a “pattern of institutional complacency that unfortunately had developed” at the reformatory over time, “in which the absence of overt violence against staff tended to obscure the ever-present potential of such violence, and the necessity of strict adherence to the practices and procedures designed to prevent it.”

In reaching his findings, Cavanaugh took note of safety violations uncovered by the state Department of Labor and Industries related to Biendl’s killing, and a National Institute of Corrections report commissioned by the state in response to her death that recommended security improvements.

The four employees were represented by Teamsters Local Union 117, which argued their grievances.

“The arbitrator’s ruling clearly demonstrates that the DOC imposed unfair discipline on its employees in the wake of this terrible tragedy,” said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of the union, in a written statement.

In an interview Tuesday, Thompson said the ruling demonstrated that the DOC’s disciplinary actions amounted to a “scapegoat situation.”

“The department was looking for someone to blame and they focused on these four individuals,” she said.

The DOC, in its statement, said it was reviewing the decision.

“We took disciplinary action because of the serious nature of the staff members’ actions — including falsifying documents and lying to police investigators — which does not accurately represent the professionalism of our staff,” the statement said. “We can only be an effective agency if we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, which we did in this case.”

The department said it carefully reviewed the actions of staff members at every level and asked for National Institute of Corrections review.

“While the National Institute determined that Monroe Correctional Complex is not unique in overcoming complacency in a work environment where the work is inherently repetitive, it does not excuse inappropriate behavior by our staff,” the statement said, referring to the facility where the reformatory is housed.

The department said it had taken every action recommended by the National Institute, as well as more than 1,000 recommendations received from staff.

“We will continue to build on our success and will continue to hold ourselves accountable for our actions because that is how we earn the public’s trust,” the statement added.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @stevemiletich

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