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Ex-prison chiefs tell of frustrations

Top aides to the governor stymied reform by giving the guards union veto power over hiring, two former corrections leaders say.

December 21, 2006|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Two former prison chiefs handpicked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that election-year politics had thwarted their efforts to fix the crisis gripping California's correctional system, prompting them to resign in frustration earlier this year.

Testifying in federal court, the two corrections secretaries singled out the prison guards union and a pair of Schwarzenegger's top aides for most of the blame, saying the aides had given the union veto power over candidates for top jobs and a say in other key decisions.

One of the aides, Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy, said she planned to play a role this year in negotiating a new labor contract for the union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., according to testimony from Jeanne Woodford, who resigned as corrections secretary in April.

Woodford said she was surprised to hear that because negotiations typically are conducted by the Department of Personnel Administration.

A longtime critic of the state's prison system called Kennedy's potential involvement alarming.

"Nothing could be a clearer example of politics than a chief of staff handling contract negotiations" with a special-interest group, said Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, which has sued the state repeatedly over prison conditions.

Wednesday's hearing, before U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, was prompted by a report last summer from John Hagar, a special master appointed by the judge to oversee certain functions of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In the report, Hagar said that after launching "one of the most productive periods of prison reform" in California history, Schwarzenegger was guilty of backpedaling and giving a "disturbing" level of clout to the guards union.

The union is a powerful player in gubernatorial elections because of its hefty campaign war chest.

Its leaders have been harshly critical of Schwarzenegger, and his aides have acknowledged that they reached out to the group -- and to other labor organizations -- to mend fences early this year.

But Woodford and her predecessor as corrections secretary, Roderick Q. Hickman, said the aides did more than reach out. They said Kennedy and Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar -- who has since resigned -- met privately with union leaders and gave them undue influence over management decisions.

One episode, Woodford said, involved the rejection of her candidates for two top posts in the corrections department. Woodford said she was told by an official in the governor's appointments office that one candidate, Susan Hubbard, was turned down because three top union officials opposed her.

The second candidate, Tim Virga, was set to fill a slot in the department's labor division, which is crucial this year because of negotiations with the union over a new contract.

Virga was widely disliked by union officials because he had accused some leaders of misusing vacation and sick time. Woodford said she was told, one day after Kennedy and Aguiar met privately with top union officials, not to give him the labor post.

Beyond such events, Woodford said she thought her agenda for the department -- one that included reform of the parole system, more education and drug treatment programs for inmates, and a fresh look at who goes to prison and for how long -- clearly was not popular with Schwarzenegger aides consumed with his reelection.

In April, Woodford said, she laid out her plan for sentencing reform and other changes to the governor, recalling that he responded, "That sounds reasonable." But, according to Woodford's testimony, Kennedy and Aguiar told him, "Governor, it's an election year."

Hickman said he sensed a loss of momentum for reform in February.

He said he resigned at the end of that month after concluding that "California is overly influenced by well-funded special interests that disallow policymakers to make good policy because they're concerned about their political futures."

He said that unless legislators, administration officials and other parties "call a time out" and work collaboratively, prison reform will be impossible.

"The issue is not the ability of the leader," said Hickman, now a consultant at X Roads Solution Group. "The issue is that the leader of the organization is not allowed to succeed."

Hagar had sought to call Kennedy and Aguiar in for questioning under oath. But last month, Judge Henderson limited the scope of the inquiry -- at least temporarily -- to Hickman and Woodford. The judge said his decision was motivated by the "sharply adversarial relationship" that is evident between Schwarzenegger and the union, which attacked the governor in advertisements and endorsed his election rival, Democrat Phil Angelides.

Union officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But recently, union lobbyist Lance Corcoran said the "cloak and dagger" view of the group's relationship with the governor was far off base. Corcoran also said union leaders had never enjoyed veto power over any appointment.

jenifer.warren@latimes.com

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