- Associated Press - Thursday, October 16, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Gov. Dave Heineman will appear before a legislative committee this month to answer questions about Nebraska’s handling of prisoners, including one who later killed four people in Omaha and hundreds whose sentences were miscalculated.

The seven-member committee voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena the governor for a hearing on Oct. 29 at the Capitol.

Committee members are expected to ask Heineman about a variety of prison issues, including the legality of some steps that prison officials took while accounting for inmates who were released too early. The roundup came after news broke that state officials had calculated hundreds of inmate sentences in a way that ran afoul of previous Nebraska Supreme Court rulings.

Heineman said Thursday that he welcomed the inquiry and would have appeared voluntarily, but was never asked. In a meeting with reporters at the Capitol, the Republican governor and Attorney General Jon Bruning blamed former state prisons attorney George Green for most of the problems. Green retired in August under threat of being fired, and later admitted that he didn’t read a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that outlined the correct way to calculate sentences.

Bruning also disputed allegations that state officials ignored two Nebraska Supreme Court rulings that pertained to the prisoner roundup, and he defended embattled state corrections director Mike Kenney.

Kenney acknowledged to the committee last week that he allowed more than half a dozen inmates to remain out of prison, despite legal advice from Green. Green, who retired shortly thereafter, warned that Kenney’s proposed “temporary alternative placement” wasn’t authorized in state law.

Bruning said Thursday that it still isn’t clear whether Kenney had the power to let those inmates remain out of prison, but the law doesn’t expressly forbid it. He also noted that the inmates were required to wear tracking bracelets on their ankles and report twice a week to parole officers.

Heineman said he was never made aware of the program, and has since told Kenney that he should have coordinated with the attorney general’s office. Kenney said he created the program for seven inmates.

Kenney, who was appointed by Heineman, told the committee that he alone created and approved the temporary placement program. That statement drew skepticism from some lawmakers.

“Frankly, it defies logic for the director of the Department of Corrections to develop a plan, be told it’s against the law and then go ahead with it,” said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the committee chairman. “At the same time, the governor is saying we will not tolerate anybody who is acting outside of the law. It is my belief that somebody authorized Kenney” to go forward with the program, despite the warnings.

Lawmakers on the panel are also probing the state’s handling of Nikko Jenkins, who was released from prison despite warnings from state ombudsmen and psychiatrists who examined him while he was incarcerated. Jenkins had pleaded for mental health treatment, but was released in July 2013 after spending 3½ years in a segregated cell. He went on to kill four people in Omaha the following month.

The Oct. 29 hearing will take place less than a week before the Nov. 4 election for Nebraska governor. Heineman, a Republican, is not returning to office due to term limits. Republican Pete Ricketts of Omaha and Democrat Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons are vying for the seat in a state that generally favors the GOP.

Lathrop, a Democrat who is often at odds with the governor, noted that the prisons committee decision to subpoena Heineman was unanimous. The officially nonpartisan panel is comprised of three Democrats, three Republicans and state Sen. Ernie Chambers, a left-leaning independent.

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