The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
The legislative investigation into the miscalculation of sentences by the prison system will forge ahead, thanks to a ruling by Judge Stephanie Stacy.
The judge’s ruling has a solid legal basis and certainly serves the public’s interest in understanding how and why state employees ignored Nebraska Supreme Court rulings on how sentences should be calculated.
Five current and former prison employees had planned to refuse to answer questions from a special legislative committee on the grounds that answers could tend to incriminate them.
Stacy’s ruling made clear that the answers they give at the hearing Thursday cannot be used as evidence against them later in a criminal prosecution. In fact, prosecutors cannot use information if it was “indirectly derived” from their testimony in front of the committee.
However, their answers could get them in trouble if they lie to the committee, or if they refuse to answer. False testimony could bring perjury charges, and refusal to answer might result in them being held in contempt.
The ruling adheres to the language of state law granting immunity to prosecution before legislative committees.
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The judge’s ruling should give the employees all the reassurance they need to testify fully and cooperatively to the Legislature’s Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee, chaired by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.
It should be noted that the five employees had reason to worry. A separate criminal investigation is ongoing, and charges could still be filed on the basis of evidence turned up separately from the committee’s probe.
Those ordered to testify by Stacy’s order are corrections department lawyers George Green and Sharon Lindgren, who retired last month rather than be fired; records clerk Jeannene Douglass, who retired earlier; lawyer Kathleen Blum, who was suspended for one working day; and records administrator Kyle Poppert, who was suspended without pay for two weeks.
Prison employees had been miscalculating prison sentences for years. When the scandal was uncovered by the Omaha World-Herald, the state had to round up 306 inmates who had been let out too early.
Emails released by the corrections department in response to freedom of information requests by the World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star made clear the department intentionally decided to continue using an incorrect formula to calculate sentences despite the ruling from the state’s high court.
As the Journal Star editorial board said in an earlier editorial, questions remain about the culture in the department. How could it be that top officials in the department did not know the court’s orders were being ignored? Why did the department think following the court’s orders was optional?
The Legislature was wise years ago to grant immunity to prosecution for occasions like this, and Judge Stacy has followed through with a ruling that protects the public’s right to get some answers.