By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — Gov. Dave Heineman denied pressuring the Nebraska Parole Board into paroling more prisoners as the prison population swelled in recent years.
Last week, parole board chairwoman Esther Casmer told a panel of lawmakers investigating prison scandals that she and the parole board were pressured into releasing more prisoners. She said former corrections director Bob Houston routinely stopped by her office to remind her of his goal of paroling 168 people per month — turning the parole board into an extension of the corrections department rather than the independent gatekeeper it’s supposed to be, by law.
HOT SEAT: Gov. Dave Heineman testifies before a legislative committee investigating the state’s prison problems in late October. The governor denied pressuring the parole board into releasing more prisoners.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop’s staff compiled statistics showing the number of paroles spiked from 982 in 2009 to 1,764 in 2013 and furloughs increased from 22 to 260.
Casmer said she felt pressure from Houston — who made it clear he had permission from his superiors to push out more prisoners — and also the governor’s chief of staff, Larry Bare, who once told her to worry more about not paroling enough people.
But the governor said she should have come to him if she was feeling that way.
“I was very surprised because Esther Casmer is a strong person and if she felt that way I’m surprised that she didn’t come and tell me that,” Heineman said Monday. “If Esther Casmer felt that kind of pressure, she should’ve come to see me. She never indicated she was feeling any pressure.”
Bare has said that’s not the message he was trying to convey, Heineman said. Bare has told reporters he was just trying to let Casmer know she wouldn’t be blamed if parolees got into trouble while out.
During his own October testimony before the legislative committee investigating several prison scandals, Heineman acknowledged he, Houston, Bare, Casmer and “one or two others” once met to talk about paroling more prisoners, but denied he was pressuring Casmer.
“We just talked about working together to do what was appropriate,” Heineman reiterated Monday. “All of these jobs… they’re all high pressure jobs.”
During his sworn testimony before the prisons committee, the governor said both Houston and Casmer vowed not to parole violent prisoners.
“Director Houston would recommend more eligible individuals for parole and Ms. Casmer indicated they would take a serious look at that,” the governor testified. “When they’ve got to cooperate, sometimes you need a meeting.”
The governor said Monday he wasn’t involved in creating a re-entry furlough program in 2008 that allowed at least 162 violent prisoners to get out of prison early. Among those released were five people convicted of second-degree murder, a couple in for manslaughter and others for robbery, terroristic threats, firearm charges and first- and second-degree assaults.
“That was a decision made by the corrections department and parole board,” Heineman said. “I was not involved.”
The state Democratic Party is calling for a special prosecutor to investigate “shocking testimonies” before Lathrop’s prisons committee. Party chairman Vince Powers said the governor’s testimony appears to conflict with Casmer’s, and the only way to find the truth is through a nonpartisan, outside prosecutor.
But the governor dismissed Powers’ call for a prosecutor as “typical political rhetoric” from the party chair.
Asked whether it would’ve been easier to build more prison beds, in hindsight, the governor said no, and said some lawmakers want to rewrite history, but they didn’t propose building a new prison either.
“Let’s be clear, we were all working to try to find ways to avoid building a new prison,” Heineman said Monday. He said he has accepted full responsibility for what occurred in the corrections department.
The state is working with the Council of State Governments to find ways to better manage the corrections system.
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