By Christine Willmsen
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.
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.