A supervisor at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center is accused of violating state ethics law by selling a nutritional supplement at the Connell prison during work hours.
Patricia Barrera, who goes by Pat, has been the subject of a whistleblower investigation by the Washington State Auditor's Office.
A report published earlier this month states that there is "reasonable cause to believe an improper action occurred," but the state Department of Corrections is waiting on supporting documents before deciding what discipline is necessary. That isn't expected to happen until sometime in late October.
Barrera has worked for the department since June 1992. She has remained on the job during the investigation.
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Barrera is the local business adviser, which a department spokeswoman said means she handles the facility budget for Coyote Ridge's banking system. She oversees the staff who deal with everything from time sheets, employee payroll and offender payroll to inmate banking and the procurement of warehouse supplies.
"Any handling of money goes through that particular office," said Ruth Clemens of the Department of Corrections.
Will Mader, another department spokesman, said Barrera is aware of the allegations and the findings by the Auditor's Office.
The State Auditor's Office opened the investigation after it "received an assertion of improper governmental activity" by the Coyote Ridge supervisor. The claim was that Barrera was delivering the nutritional supplement at the facility and keeping a catalog at the office, according to spokesman Thomas Shapley.
"We appreciate very much whoever the whistleblower was. It's very important that state employees, when they see something that isn't right, that they report to us. They file a whistleblower complaint and we look into it," Shapley told the Herald. "Our mission here is to hold state and local government accountable, and it's really helpful when individuals in the agency will speak up like this."
State ethics laws prohibits the use of state resources -- whether people, money or property -- for the purpose of conducting an outside business, private employment or other activities for private financial gain, according to the report.
"Taxpayers are paying for the office I'm in and the desk I'm sitting at and the computer. Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for me to promote my private business," Shapley said. "We see this from time to time. People will bring product catalogs in to work but it's just not appropriate. You're supposed to be there to do the job that taxpayers pay you to do."
For state government workers that includes the direct selling of merchandise such as beauty products and candles, and can cover fundraisers for kids such as school wrapping paper drives and cookie sales. Sometimes people will do things exclusively on their lunch break or in the parking lot, and then it's like "splitting hairs" trying to confirm a violation, Shapley said.
Investigators reviewed Barrera's Internet use and email folders at the office and found she had not used either for her outside business, the final report said. However, witnesses said Barrera was promoting, selling and delivering the product at the prison.
Barrera reportedly told investigators she had sold the supplement at work until her supervisor told her to cease the activity. She also said she sold and delivered at work, but had not approached anyone directly to purchase, the report said.
During interviews, investigators learned that Barrera previously had sold another product during work hours in the prison.
Barrera said she had sold that product four or five years prior, but had not done so at the office, the report said. She did deliver purchased products at work and kept a catalog in her office.
It's the job of the auditor's office to independently and objectively review the allegations and give results to the agency and to the public, and then any action taken in response to the findings is on the agency, Shapley said. The office does not discipline people.
"We look at not just the improper action on the part of the individual, but we also look at systems and internal controls," he said. "And if there are any systemic problems like that, we will also bring them to the attention of the agency or the local government that we're looking at."
Auditor Troy Kelley notified the Department of Corrections that the investigation was complete with a letter attached to the official report.
Mader, speaking on behalf of the department, said they consider any ethics violations to be serious.
"The appointing authority for the employee in question has reviewed the draft report and is prepared to follow established procedures to determine the appropriate action to take as soon as the State Auditor's Office provides the supporting documentation and interview notes gathered during their investigation," he told the Herald in a written statement. "Once this information is received, our human resources department will work with the appointing authority to determine potential disciplinary action."
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; email@example.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer