This article is Part 2 of an ongoing series called #ARCorrectionsCrisis, which focuses on the dysfunction of the Arkansas Board of Corrections. We intend to track their actions and educate the public about their conduct until they finally prioritize Arkansas crime victims and the safety of our communities above their own power.
New records obtained by Opportunity Arkansas cast serious doubt about the impartiality of a recent prison capacity memo authored and publicized by the Department of Corrections.
The memo was authored by Auditor Tommy James, at the request of Corrections Board Chair Benny Magness. It came just weeks after the board declined to open nearly 500 prison beds at the request of Secretary Joe Profiri.
The board has since repeatedly used the memo as justification for their decision, even including it as a key component of their legal argument against the state of Arkansas. But new information about James’s ethical misconduct raises serious questions about the reliability of the memo and the board’s inaction.
A key contention point in this ongoing saga is whether or not additional state prison beds can be opened to deal with the overflow of inmates currently in county jails. Secretary of Corrections Joe Profiri, who the Board recently suspended, constructed his own plan for how resources could be reallocated in order to open more beds. The Board of Corrections, however, has resisted.
They opened just roughly 20 percent of the beds the secretary requested, far less than what is needed, on November 6, at the request of Director of the Division of Corrections Dexter Payne.
Then, on December 6, the board received a brief memo from Corrections Auditor Tommy James. In essence, the memo outlined several alleged reasons why Payne’s requests for additional beds could not be met, including things like “sewer capacity.”
The memo also gave Chairman Magness and the board cover for their refusal to open additional beds. It has also been repeatedly cited as gospel by state media and leftist legislators who are anxious to dunk on the Sanders administration.
But new records, obtained by Opportunity Arkansas through public records requests, suggest the capacity memo should be viewed with suspicion.
OA obtained copies of Auditor James’s personnel records from his time at the Department of Corrections. They reveal that James has a bit of a checkered past.
In 2013, it was brought to the attention of department officials that James had been filing tax returns for state inmates. When one inmate reported that James had incorrectly reported her income, an internal investigation began. It revealed that James had violated the department’s policy regarding income tax filing for inmates.
Additionally, when James was confronted about the situation and asked directly if he had utilized state equipment for his personal tax services, he told DOC officials “no.” But department IT officials were able to determine this was a lie, finding tax records for more than 200 individuals on his state computer.
According to his termination letter, “this clearly shows you were conducting non-state business while on Arkansas Department of Correction duty.”
Upon completion of the investigation, department officials determined James was guilty of:
James’s subsequent unemployment claim perhaps said it more directly: “discharged…for being dishonest."
And the department official who signed off on James’s termination? Dexter Payne, the same director who appeared at the November 6 meeting and whose capacity claims James was tasked with reviewing.
Perhaps Tommy James has had a significant change of heart since 2013 and no longer acts deceptively in his official capacity as a state employee. But basing major Corrections department policy on the recommendations of someone with a history of deception—within the same government agency—is certainly cause for concern.
Arkansans should also be asking:
Arkansans should be able to fully trust any and all information coming out of the Department of Corrections. Unfortunately, Chairman Magness and Tommy James have given us plenty of reason for doubt.
Notably, James’s audit is also a key element of the board’s legal argument in their suit against the state, which they say helps prove the “irreparable harm” that the opening of more prison beds would inflict.
Another judicial hearing on the Board’s suit is scheduled for tomorrow, December 28.