Two top lawyers for the Nebraska Department of Corrections have resigned ahead of being fired, and two others have been suspended without pay in connection with letting prisoners out early.
The personnel actions are the latest fallout from revelations that hundreds of prisoners were released before they should have been. The releases came despite a February, 2013 Nebraska Supreme Court decision that spelled out how sentences should be calculated. That decision was not followed by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
Friday, Corrections Director Mike Kenney announced that General Counsel George Green and Associate Legal Counsel Sharon Lindgren have retired from the department, effective immediately. Kenney said he had determined that they should be fired, and faced with that, they had decided to retire instead.
Gov. Dave Heineman applauded the result. "These two individuals, who are both lawyers, ignored the February, 2013 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. They did not properly coordinate a response to this ruling with the Attorney General’s office. And they failed to inform the former director and the current director of the department about this Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. Mr. Green and Miss Lindgren are no longer employed by the Department of Correctional Services, and they shouldn’t be," Heineman said.
Corrections Director Kenney declined to get into details of what Green and Lindgren did. But he said it was more a matter of negligence than deliberate action. "It wasn’t an action that someone took. It was the actions they failed to take," Kenney said.
Green and Lindgren could not be reached for comment. In addition to their resignations, Kenney also announced that Records Administrator Kyle Popper would be suspended for two weeks and Associate Legal Counsel Kathy Blum for one day, both without pay.
In addition to the disciplinary action, the State Patrol is investigating whether any criminal activity took place in the early releases. And a special legislative committee is also investigating. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of that committee, said Green, Lindgren, Poppert and Blum were among witnesses being subpoenaed for the committee’s next public hearing. Lathrop was asked if he expected they would testify, considering the ongoing criminal investigation.
"I would expect so. But if they do not, there is a remedy for the Legislature to compel their testimony. By statute we can go down to the district court and get an order compelling their testimony. And the order would indicate that the testimony they give could not be used in a criminal proceeding," Lathrop said.
The early releases came at a time when the state was struggling to deal with prison overcrowding, although the governor has rejected any suggestion there was a connection between the two. In a public hearing last week, former Corrections Director Bob Houston testified that Heineman never ordered him not to seek money to build a new prison, but that the desire to avoid construction was generally understood. Heineman was asked if a similar understanding might have played a role in the early releases. He said he didn’t know about that, but went on to address the question of new prison construction.
"I’ve been here 10 years. There hasn’t been a single Nebraska state senator who has called me or written me a letter and said ‘Governor, we need to build a new prison.’ They’re aware of all of the same budget information, all of the detail that all of us are aware of. And I think it’s been very clear all along, we’ve all tried to work to try to find a way to avoid building a new prison," he said.
But Lathrop said Heineman had received a master plan for prisons in 2006 that called for constructing prisons containing 1300 new beds, and ignored it.
"I think he’s trying to deflect responsibility for not taking an active role in the management of the Department of Corrections, and that’s what he was elected to do," Lathrop said.
The committee’s next public hearing, for which Green, Lindgren, Poppert and Blum will be subpoenaed, is scheduled for Sept. 4.