It was all smiles yesterday at the D.C. Department of Corrections -- an unusual occurrence for the embattled agency, which has been the subject of mostly negative news accounts for the last two weeks.
They had John F. Herrity, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman who is never at a loss for critical words about the department, right where they wanted him.
Herrity had released a stack of documents that he said showed the Corrections Department was "deliberately" not prosecuting people who have tried to smuggle drugs and weapons into Lorton Reformatory.
The only problem was that the story was all wrong.
The move did not ingratiate Herrity with the federal government, either. According to one source, Herrity on Wednesday told Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen and other federal officials that he would release the story Thursday unless the Justice Department agreed to resume placing the District's prisoners in federal institutions.
Shortly after noon Thursday, Herrity's office called three reporters and gave them the documents, accompanied by colorful quotes from Herrity about the poor management of the Department of Corrections. The documents consisted of about 70 letters sent to persons who have been permanently banned from the city's prisons for being caught trying to smuggle contraband inside. Herrity said he had been told by "a source" that none of the persons had been turned over by the Corrections Department for prosecution.
In addition, Herrity said that the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria had researched one of the letters and determined that the person's name had never been forwarded by the department. He said that led him to conclude that the department wasn't forwarding any names. Yesterday came the cool retort from corrections chief James Palmer. "My style of management is not confrontational," he said, smiling, as three top aides produced a stack of documents 18 inches high that flew in the face of Herrity's allegations. The documents showed that the Corrections Department has given to the FBI the names of persons accused of smuggling contraband into Lorton, but that the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria didn't want to prosecute them.
Asked if he regretted accusing the department of not forwarding the cases, Herrity said yesterday, "If that's not the case, then obviously." He denied telling Jensen he would release the story if Justice did not resume taking the city's prisoners. "I think it's about time we got the issue [of why persons aren't prosecuted] out there and get some responses from the Justice Department, the U.S. attorney, the FBI and the Department of Corrections," he said.
For Palmer, whose department has been reeling from one crisis to another for the last 12 days, it was a small coup. "I would consider it more palatable if these matters were addressed to me so I could respond" in person, rather than in the media, Palmer said.
According to corrections officials, 570 persons were permanently banned from Lorton in 1984 and 1985 for attempting to smuggle contraband inside the prison. Department officials said that about 75 percent of them were referred to the FBI for possible prosecution. In fact, the flood of cases prompted a letter from the FBI asking that the practice of informing the bureau cease. According to the letter, 147 cases were turned over to the FBI between April 1984 and May 1985, and a survey found that none were repeat offenders.
"The United States Attorney's Office, Alexandria, Virginia, has maintained its policy of not pursuing prosecution of 'one-time' violators," the letter said. "We request that only those contraband incidents involving repeat offenders be reported to this office."
An FBI spokesman said yesterday the letter was written at the direction of the U.S. attorney's office and declined further comment. The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria did not return a reporter's phone calls.