Politics & Government

New Kansas prisons chief gave ‘disingenuous’ testimony in Idaho case, judge ruled

Jeff Zmuda
Jeff Zmuda Idaho Department of Correction

Gov. Laura Kelly’s choice to lead Kansas prisons provided “disingenuous” testimony to an Idaho court, a judge ruled in March.

Kelly’s office has praised Jeff Zmuda, a high-ranking corrections official in Idaho, for a “long record of success” and extensive experience in addressing staffing challenges. Zmuda will bring new ideas to Kansas, the governor said last week.

His selection comes at turbulent time for Kansas prisons, which have suffered from riots and staff shortages that have reached crisis levels.

But over the past year, the 30-year veteran of the Idaho Department of Correction has been swept up in a lawsuit to force the release of that state’s execution records. Idaho officials over the past year have kept finding more documents, despite previous assurances by Zmuda that all known records were collected.

“He had the pattern of claiming under oath he was essentially doing his job and upholding his responsibility yet consistently contradicted himself as to that conduct,” Molly Kafka, interim legal director of the ACLU of Idaho, said.

Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said Friday that Zmuda “recognizes the challenges of this case and that the IDOC could have done some things better. However, he has worked with staff to conduct multiple searches for records to meet the courts order.”

Zmuda will begin working in Kansas this summer, but the state Senate must eventually confirm him. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, appears ready to oppose him over the judge’s comments.

“These claims are deeply troublesome, and if true, this administration has either learned nothing from their mistakes in thoroughly vetting nominees or are completely naïve,” Wagle said.

University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover first asked for records in 2017 related to the executions of two Idaho inmates. Represented by the ACLU, Cover sued last year, accusing officials of withholding documents, including those showing how the state obtained execution drugs.

As the lawsuit progressed, Zmuda said in a sworn affidavit on July 19, 2018, that state officials had collected “all known documents” related to the 2011 and 2012 executions.

But after a trial early this year, Idaho District Judge Lynn Norton in a March decision took Zmuda and other Idaho Department of Correction officials to task for how they had handled the records request.

“The emphasis on the word ‘known’ in a sworn affidavit filed with this Court is disingenuous since the affidavit was filed with the intent to have this Court rely on its representation that IDOC had conducted an adequate search at the time it was filed,” Norton wrote of Zmuda’s July 19 statement.

In fact, Norton found, officials had not conducted a diligent search before Zmuda filed the affidavit.

Deposition transcripts in the case show that the day after Zmuda filed the affidavit, he directed an official to email all corrections employees seeking any records related to the executions, according to sworn depositions in the lawsuit. Since then, Idaho has turned over hundreds of additional pages.

Norton said that Zmuda’s decision to file the affidavit the day before ordering a search as well as previous failures to disclose records were all “frivolous conduct.” She also hammered the agency’s poor recordkeeping.

Idaho law “makes no exceptions for records poorly indexed, improperly filed, maintained in more than one location, or abandoned in desks or basements,” Norton wrote.

In his affidavit, Zmuda acknowledged recordkeeping problems, saying “we have previously failed to organize documents properly.”

Kansas an ‘excellent opportunity’

Zmuda will inherit a troubled prison system in Kansas when he begins as secretary of corrections on July 1.

Riots rocked several prisons in 2017 as officials shuffled inmates around the state. While the unrest has largely subsided, the agency continues to suffer from severe, chronic short staffing.

Hundreds more officers are needed statewide to fully staff the prisons. El Dorado Correctional Facility has been in a state of emergency since February, with officers frequently working mandatory overtime.

“This is a critical time of change and recovery for the Kansas Department of Corrections,” Kelly said in a statement last week when she announced Zmuda’s appointment.

Kelly said she was pleased Zmuda had agreed “to take on the important challenge of restoring our corrections system and improving morale across all facilities. He will continue our work to rebuild the agency while bringing new ideas and leadership to Kansas.”

Kelly’s office has said Zmuda has a record in Idaho of coordinating with lawmakers, the judiciary and other partners. He previously served as chief of prisons there, overseeing the operation of the state’s nine correctional facilities.

In Idaho, Zmuda oversaw and developed a culture in the prisons focused on making sure staff have what they need to be successful, IDOC Director Josh Tewalt said. He added Zmuda had also worked to make sure individuals in custody are provided meaningful opportunities to change.

Asked about his major accomplishments, Zmuda in written comments said the agency was able to switch to evidence-based programming in Idaho’s prisons, which improved the response of offenders. The agency also reformed its restrictive housing practice to align closely to national standards, he said.

“I’ve had a long, successful career in Idaho, but this was an excellent opportunity to take on new challenges and make a real difference in Kansas. In many ways, the two states are similar in values and priorities. It’s clear Governor Kelly is committed to rebuilding this agency and ensuring the employees feel valued and have the resources to do their jobs safely,” Zmuda said.

He said he looks forward to getting to know the staff and earning their trust.

Zmuda will take over from Roger Werholtz, a former Kansas corrections secretary, who had led the agency since January. Werholtz drew praise from lawmakers for his frank talk about problems facing the prisons, but had always said he planned to remain in the position temporarily.

Zmuda will have additional funding to work with when he assumes his responsibilities. Lawmakers approved an increase of more than $30 million for state prisons.

But before corrections officials can spend the money, they must obtain permission from the State Finance Council, a body made up of legislative leaders and chaired by the governor.

The council is set to discuss the corrections budget this coming Wednesday. All said Zmuda is being brought up to speed by staff, but will not be part of the meeting.