LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Prison officials traded blame Thursday over a decision to disregard a Nebraska Supreme Court opinion that specified how to sentence inmates, resulting in hundreds of who were released too early.
Lawmakers grilled current and former employees during a 12-hour investigative hearing into why the sentences were miscalculated.
George Green, a former top lawyer for the Department of Correctional Services, insisted that he never read the opinion despite several instances when it was brought to his attention.
Green, who retired last month under threat of being fired, said he was told by a state prison records administrator, Kyle Poppert, that the situation was being handled. Poppert, who was not a lawyer, said he wasn’t given clear guidance from lawyers about how to proceed after the 2013 ruling.
Several lawmakers said neither man was credible.
“I don’t believe that any sane jury would listen to what you’d say,” Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said to Green.
A retired records manager, Jeannene Douglass, told the committee that her superiors gave her no guidance after the ruling. At least two rulings have spelled out the way to determine sentences for inmates serving mandatory minimums, resulting in longer sentences.
Douglass was one of the first figures identified in the scandal, in which the Department of Correctional Services improperly released about 750 inmates, including serial burglars and gang members.
The former prison-records manager said she and other employees were already under pressure to reduce overcrowding, and she had questions about how to interpret the ruling. So Douglass said she continued to double-check and approve the erroneous sentences under a formula the department had used for years.
“It was quite well-known that we had to reduce the population, and there was a lot of pressure to find ways to do it,” Douglass said.
Emails released under Nebraska’s public records law revealed that the attorney general’s office had notified Douglass about the ruling, but that she questioned whether doing so was practical or in the best interest of prisoners.
Gov. Dave Heineman announced last month that two department attorneys, Green and Sharon Lindgren, had retired under threat of being fired. Two other department employees, Poppert and associate legal counsel Kathy Blum, were suspended for their roles in the miscalculations.
Poppert, Douglass’ boss, told lawmakers Thursday that his former employee had raised questions about how to interpret the Supreme Court decision. But he said he relies on others to tell him how to proceed.
Poppert said attorneys for the Department of Correctional Services later told them they didn’t believe the ruling applied to all inmates, because the agency wasn’t named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The explanation drew scorn from several lawmakers, who argued that department administrators were trying to avoid responsibility and shift blame onto lower-level employees. The department took no action for months after the court issued its ruling but scrambled to fix the problem once the sentencing errors were discovered by the Omaha World-Herald, Chambers said.
Chambers also said lawmakers and Heineman deserve blame for a lack of oversight, and called Poppert a “fool” for ignoring the high court ruling.
Ron Riethmuller, a former records administrator who was succeeded by Poppert, told lawmakers that the department changed after he left his position in 2008, and he was appalled to learn that the ruling wasn’t followed.
He said the duty of calculating sentences should have fallen to the state records administrator, Poppert, and not Douglass, but the job was given to her after he retired.
Former assistant attorney general Linda Willard testified that she notified state prison officials about the Supreme Court ruling and believed that the now-fired DCS attorneys would ensure that the agency complied. But Willard acknowledged under questioning that she could have been more forceful in making sure that the ruling was followed.
Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning have requested a separate investigation into the prison sentencing, which could lead to criminal charges. Heineman has also said he will release the findings of a Lincoln law firm hired by the state to investigate what happened.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.