The widening debate over California’s prison crisis turned hostile Wednesday, as a federal court monitor called a top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a liar and said he would order the aide to testify under oath about the administration’s relationship with the politically powerful guards union.
Special Master John Hagar reiterated his view that the governor had abandoned reforms to appease the guards. He also said he intended to force the aide, Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar, and Chief of Staff Susan Kennedy to testify as part of his probe of the union’s influence in the prison system.
In extraordinarily blunt remarks, Hagar said Kennedy appeared to be “in the pocket” of the union, had traded favors with the group and had allowed its leaders unusual access to the governor’s office.
And he lamented that politics interfered with the efforts of two reform-minded chiefs of the state corrections department, who resigned in quick succession earlier this year.
“People have quit because they felt their ethics were compromised,” Hagar said. “There are significant problems.... The place is crumbling.”
Hagar’s comments came at a hearing he called after issuing a report last month that blasted Schwarzenegger for a “disturbing” reversal on prison reform.
The governor’s top lawyer, Andrea Hoch, vigorously denied that the governor is either backpedaling or granting the union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., undue influence over prison management.
Rather, she said, Schwarzenegger -- who is running for reelection -- is reaching out to the union because he believes an “inclusive style” can best help him complete reforms that he began after taking office in 2003.
“Progress will continue,” Hoch assured Hagar during the tense three-hour session in a courtroom packed with state officials and inmates’ families. “The governor is committed to that.”
Hagar, who was appointed by a federal judge to oversee certain functions of the sprawling penal system, was clearly not convinced. He said he intended to ask U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to let him continue his investigation and hold hearings, which could, Hagar said, lead to more direct federal control of the state system.
“If you sense frustration on my part, you’re right,” Hagar said. For 11 years, he explained, he has been pushing for improvements in the correctional system and running into resistance.
The newest roadblock, he asserted, is the shift in relations between Schwarzenegger and the correctional officers’ union, a powerful player in state politics with more than $10 million to spend on the November election.
Hagar linked the change to the hiring of Kennedy in January. He said Kennedy and other top aides had helped union leaders by giving them veto power over high-level prison appointments -- including of Tim Virga, a candidate for a labor relations job.
Hagar said the warming relationship -- including meetings involving union leaders, Kennedy and Aguiar -- had prompted former corrections secretaries Roderick Hickman and Jeanne Woodford to quit, demoralizing employees and creating management turmoil.
And Hagar said he did not believe that Aguiar was truthful in describing, as part of a sworn declaration submitted to the court earlier this week, a conversation he had with Hickman before he resigned in February. Hagar also questioned Aguiar’s truthfulness during a phone conversation the two had in April, when Aguiar told him that Woodford was resigning for family reasons.
In fact, Hagar said, Woodford stepped down over concerns that her authority was being eroded by union leaders’ ties to Kennedy and Aguiar.
The special master spent much of the hearing laying blame for the prisons’ woes at the feet of the union, and said he would not stand by and allow politics to reverse the substantial gains made during Schwarzenegger’s first two years in office.
Gregg Adam, a lawyer for the correctional officers, said Hagar had based his conclusions on “speculation, innuendo and rumor.” In an edgy exchange with the special master, Adam criticized Hagar for unfairly shrouding his sources in anonymity and dismissing the union’s input as “irrelevant.”
“There are two sides to the story,” Adam said.
After the hearing, union lobbyist Lance Corcoran said Hagar’s “cloak and dagger” view of the group’s relationship with the governor was wrong. He said union leaders had never enjoyed veto power over any appointment, although they had concerns about Virga.
In Hagar’s “mind, CCPOA is to blame for all the problems in the Department of Corrections,” Corcoran said. “I’m surprised he didn’t blame us for the Lindbergh baby [kidnapping] and for having a role in the Kennedy assassination.”
The face-off in federal court comes as Schwarzenegger grapples with a deepening crisis in the state’s 33 adult prisons, most of which are packed to twice their intended capacity. With inmates sleeping in triple-decker bunks and in hallways, gyms and other unorthodox spaces, corrections officials say they will be completely out of space by next year. The prisons now hold about 171,000 men and women.
This week, Schwarzenegger released a plan, which would cost at least $3.6 billion, to build two new prisons; add on to existing ones; ship as many as 5,000 incarcerated illegal immigrants to other states; and open scores of community-based mini-prisons to house inmates who are about to be released.
Critics say the plan, which would increase the number of inmate beds by more than 40,000 by 2011, relies too heavily on prison building and should instead aim to decrease California’s 70% recidivism rate, the nation’s highest.
The crisis has quickly become a campaign topic, with Schwarzenegger’s Democratic challenger, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, holding two events last week to promote his own prison reform plan.