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Disciplining of Guards Questioned

Penalties were reduced or dismissed in 60% of appeals, often because of outgunned state lawyers or weak cases, officials tell a legislative panel.

March 23, 2004|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — When California's corrections agencies try to discipline guards and other employees, they usually are outgunned, state personnel board officials testified Monday at a legislative hearing.

In more than 60% of the cases that corrections employees appeal to the board, the penalties are reduced or thrown out.

The failure rate of cases from the Department of Corrections and its juvenile equivalent, the California Youth Authority, stands out, personnel board President William Elkins said, because the five-member panel generally sustains 90% of all state government disciplinary actions that come before it.

Personnel officials said guards and other corrections employees have been provided with lawyers who often were better prepared and qualified than the state's representatives. Sometimes the agencies pit employee relations officers against attorneys hired by employee unions.

"Oftentimes, the department has not made that compelling a case" for discipline, said board Vice President Ronald Alvarado.

The officials testified at a Senate hearing into state employee discipline and the personnel board, which passes judgment on appeals of disciplinary actions imposed by state departments.

In recent weeks, the discipline of corrections employees has taken center stage in legislative hearings amid investigations into the conduct of prison guards, reports of a guard "code of silence" and court cases alleging mistreatment of prisoners.

As part of a remedial plan for strengthening investigations and discipline, prison officials said, they wanted to add more attorneys to their staffs and involve them at the outset of investigations. Those steps, they said, would allow them to bring stronger cases to the personnel board.

Jeanne Woodford, the state's new corrections director, said the department wanted to improve the training of employee relations officers and provide ethics training for all department employees. "We want to get our house in order," she said.

Also during the hearing, a supervisor at California's prison headquarters testified that he had read more than 200 books after superiors bounced him to a meaningless job in retaliation for blowing the whistle on rising overtime and sick leave costs.

Mark Krupp, a former prison guard who once managed three Department of Corrections computer systems, said he was paid $6,000 a month for 15 months while doing a job that entailed about an hour of work a week.

"I basically did reading and applied to 50 other jobs [within the department] and went to interviews," he said.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who led the hearing as chairwoman of the Select Committee on Government Oversight, called Krupp's whistle-blower case a "nightmare" and a "stunning case of what is wrong with the system" for disciplining employees accused of misconduct.

"This has gone on almost three years now," said Speier. "This man read 200 books, not because he wanted to ... but because no one would give him work."

The corrections department had appealed findings by the independent inspector general that superiors retaliated against Krupp.

A judge has sent the matter back to the state personnel board for a new hearing, and a lawsuit by Krupp is pending in Superior Court.

Krupp, who now oversees contracts for the department's substance abuse program, said all he wanted was for the department to "stop retaliating against me, a regular job ... [and] to repay me for legal expenses" of more than $20,000.

Looking at state officials, Speier said, "This does not add up."

The prison disciplinary system has been criticized repeatedly as being too cumbersome, complex and time-consuming. The inspector general has found that 43% of all cases are dropped because investigations are not completed by a one-year deadline.

State departments took 3,000 disciplinary actions in 2002, the personnel board said, and 1,648 were appealed.

Of those appeals, 913 were settled, 312 were withdrawn and 161 were pending. Of the cases decided by the board, 138 were sustained, 66 were modified and 58 were revoked.

Speier closely questioned Woodford and youth authority director Walter Allen about how they would deal with any employees who shunned other employees or retaliated against them for reporting wrongdoing.

"We will show no mercy," said Allen.

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