Prison report shines light on special master
(Sacramento Bee, The (CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jul. 16--He called the governor's Cabinet secretary a liar, accused his chief of staff of "trading" appointments for political support and told the correctional officers union that the state's prison crisis "is on your shoulders."
Talking tough and backed up by the power of a federal judge, Special Master John Hagar was totally in his element last Wednesday. In a hearing on his draft report stemming from the resignation of two prison directors, Hagar launched a frontal assault on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration and took on one of the most powerful political forces in the state, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
"I think John Hagar has more guts than any public official in California," said outgoing state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, after watching Hagar's performance at the San Francisco federal courthouse.
But in the eyes of the Schwarzenegger administration, Hagar, in his latest foray into prison oversight in California, has seriously compromised his credibility and professionalism, relying on unattributed accusations and offering no factual basis in his attacks on gubernatorial chief of staff Susan Kennedy and Cabinet Secretary Fred Aguiar.
"The special master has made some very egregious accusations," gubernatorial spokesman Adam Mendelsohn said. "It is based on a report that is riddled with errors and based on nothing but rumors and undisclosed sources."
CCPOA Vice President Chuck Alexander, a longtime target of Hagar's, said the special master's oversight of prison issues in California has descended into a personal attack on the union. He said Hagar, who has pushed to eradicate what he calls a "code of silence" that blocks investigations into employee misconduct, doesn't practice what he preaches.
"You agree with him, everything's hunky-dory," Alexander said. "But if you disagree, he attacks you and tries to silence you by subpoenaing you and implying he'd do something to you relative to your disagreement. If that's not a code of silence, I don't know what is."
Hagar, by policy, has not commented publicly on any aspect of his oversight job -- now in its 11th year -- created by U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson's ruling in 1995. Initially restricted to issues at Pelican Bay State Prison, the special master's power was expanded in 2004 to include oversight of use of force, internal discipline and other issues throughout the state's 33 prisons.
A one-time attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the 59-year-old Hagar has represented both inmates and correctional management in a quarter-century career focused on prison oversight.
He represented inmates in a civil rights lawsuit where the plaintiffs forced changes in the Los Angeles County Jail operations, but also defended the sheriff's departments in Tehama and Shasta counties in lawsuits filed over their incarceration practices, according to his resume.
Since 1985, Hagar has conducted legal and ethical training seminars for correctional agencies across the country, gaining a reputation as one of the most hard-working, fair and diligent specialists in his field.
"My first stereotypical expectation of him was that he'd be something of a firebrand," said William C. Collins, a former deputy attorney general in Washington state who has tangled with Hagar on correctional issues in the Northwest and has known him for more than 20 years. "But he's not a flaming anything -- my first expectation of him being a firebrand was completely off base. He's pretty levelheaded, he knows the law well and he doesn't come with a bias or prejudice."
Hagar is paid $125 an hour for his special master duties -- a fee that has exceeded $100,000 in some years and is funded by California taxpayers. According to the corrections department, his office has incurred $4.9 million in oversight costs since it was created in 1995, mostly in reports that Hagar has commissioned from outside experts on assorted correctional issues.
In addition, Hagar works as the chief of staff to Robert Sillen, the receiver appointed by Henderson to oversee health care for the prison system's 172,000 inmates. Hagar makes $250 an hour in the chief of staff job he assumed in April.
Through the end of June, Hagar billed the state 289.5 hours as Sillen's chief staffer, putting his pay at $72,375 for the 2 1/2 months on the job, not counting his special master's duties.
Initially an assistant on the Pelican Bay case, Hagar became the special master in 1997 and performed his duties in the ensuing years largely out of the public glare. In the meantime, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation gradually came into compliance with Henderson's orders, and Hagar himself recommended that he wind down his monitoring responsibilities.
But allegations that two correctional officers perjured themselves in a 2002 federal court trial in San Francisco stirred Hagar to conduct an investigation. He concluded in a report released in early 2004 that former corrections chief Ed Alameida shut down the perjury probe at the request of the CCPOA -- even though the results of the investigation were forwarded to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, which chose not to prosecute.
Hagar later issued a draft report recommending a criminal contempt citation against Alameida. The former prison director denied shutting down the investigation, and his attorneys responded by filing 525 objections to Hagar's report, accusing him of repeatedly mischaracterizing and misstating the evidence in the case.
"I thought he did a terrible number on Ed Alameida," said Mike Pickett, a former deputy corrections director who worked with Hagar at Pelican Bay. "Ed didn't have that coming. But Hagar chose not to believe him."
Henderson ultimately rejected Hagar's recommendation for the criminal contempt filing. But the judge did uphold Hagar's request to expand the special master's authority, to the areas -- departmentwide -- of use of force, discipline and labor relations.
The special master turned his attention to the Governor's Office this year after the resignations in February and April of corrections secretaries Rod Hickman and Jeanne Woodford. Hagar hailed the two Wednesday as ethical leaders undermined by CCPOA influence in the Schwarzenegger administration.
On Wednesday, Hagar said Aguiar, the Schwarzenegger Cabinet secretary, made a "flat-out false" statement that Woodford quit for personal reasons. He also said he wants to question Kennedy, the governor's chief of staff, under oath to see if she torpedoed the appointment of a corrections assistant labor relations secretary at the union's behest.
Mendelsohn and Alexander strongly rejected Hagar's statements and insinuations, but the gubernatorial spokesman and the CCPOA vice president welcomed Hagar's request to conduct an ongoing investigation.
Collins, the Hagar colleague in the prison monitoring business, said that anybody who is upset with Hagar's performance could file a motion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 to lift the court order that established the special master.
State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said that in reading accounts of Hagar's performance Wednesday, it sounded to her like "he went off the deep end." But while she said he was "unprofessional" and made "some very serious unfounded allegations," he needs to stay at his post while inmate health care, overcrowding and other issues are overwhelming the prison system.
"He needs to return to being more professional and move us in the area of reform and not try to dictate who should be leading the reform," Romero said.
THE HAGAR FILE
-- Who: John Hagar
-- What: Special master
-- Age: 59
-- Education: 1968, bachelor of arts, UCLA; 1979, juris doctor, Southwestern School of Law
-- Duties: California prison oversight job was created by a ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson in 1995. Initially restricted to issues at Pelican Bay State Prison, the special master's power was expanded in 2004 to include oversight of use of force, internal discipline and other issues throughout the state's 33 prisons.
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