Belinda Stewart, State Prisons Official, Awaiting Fate Following Ethics Probe of Nonprofit Work

News Tribune
Belinda Stewart.
In his own little investigation of a prisons official who ran a handful of nonprofit businesses from her Tumwater state office, Sen. Mike Carrell was able to determine that Belinda Stewart, the Department of Corrections (DOC) $102,000-a-year communications director, and her co-workers had racked up almost 600 hours of charity work on the government's clock. That, in his view, was enough to get her fired.

Now, following an ethics board investigation that determined Stewart and other DOC workers actually spent more than 1,000 hours of taxpayer time running the nonprofits, Carrell is convinced she has to be fired, and has sent a letter to that effect to the DOC. "I believe she has been asked to resign and has refused," confides the Lakewood Republican who sparked the DOC and state Executive Ethics Board probes.

Stewart, the former superintendent at Purdy and Aberdeen prisons, who once was disciplined for selling Avon products on the job to her employees, was operating as many as seven nonprofit businesses on state time. Officially, she has so far only been reassigned as the ethics board awaits her response to its findings last week. The board agreed there was probable cause to think she broke state law using staff, computers, state cars, and e-mail systems to benefit her businesses.

There was no proof that Stewart personally benefited financially from the arrangement, the ethics probe determined. Most of the work had been supported by higher-ups and appeared to aid the Department of Corrections' own goals. Stewart did not respond to a request for comment, but is said to be writing a spirited defense of her nonprofits and how they complemented the state's efforts.

Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner says in a statement that the department will institute new ethics training and suspend a policy that allowed three of the nonprofits to operate using state resources, an arrangement established by then-DOC secretary Eldon Vail (who recently resigned after he was videotaped outside a Tumwater motel after allegedly having a nooner with another DOC employee).

The ethics probe determined that Stewart used state vehicles to visit prisons on both sides of the state to lead classes for state employees involved in one nonprofit, the National Association of Women in Criminal Justice, and used the vehicles to attend at least four meetings involving another business, Faith Based Re-Entry Coalition. (Though some of Stewart's businesses have been granted federal 501 (c) (3) charity status, others are still awaiting approval).

Probers turned up about 3,000 Stewart e-mails related to another nonprofit, the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice. They also learned the DOC footed more than $1,000 in lodging, transportation and per diem expenses for her nonprofit-related travel.

The ethics board will make a final ruling in the case after receiving Stewart's response. But Sen. Carrell thinks a good DOC housecleaning is in order. "She didn't do this in a vacuum," he tells SW. "She had people above her OK this, saying it's 'good for morale.' The issue is who it benefited--and it benefited her entities, not the state."

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