Jo Acton’s long career with the Montana Department of Corrections has been documented in numerous Billings Gazette news articles that were overwhelmingly positive: Fundraising for the women’s prison chapel, starting a program for inmates to raise helper dogs for individuals with disabilities, expanding educational opportunities and community connections for inmates to transition back to living lawfully on the outside.
There was a problem with $4,100 in cellphone roaming charges for private calls made on her state phone. The matter was publicly reported in January 2003 after being disclosed in a legislative audit in November 2002. It was addressed by Acton and the department and everyone moved on.
However, the department has refused to make public the concerns that immediately preceded Acton’s sudden retirement notice. The Corrections Department announced on March 13 that Acton had been placed on administrative leave and that two assistant wardens would be taking over the warden’s duties in her absence.
Sudden retirement notice
One week later, Acton sent a brief letter to the Corrections Department stating that she was retiring. A Corrections spokesman said Acton would spend three weeks of April helping with transition planning and then use up her accumulated vacation leave until she retires on July 1.
With Acton’s retirement, Corrections dropped the review of prison operations it commenced as a result of the personnel matter that prompted the department to put Acton on paid leave. The department has declined to say any more.
The Billings Gazette has requested information on the investigation that led to Acton’s administrative leave.
That information clearly is public. The Gazette is seeking information on the conduct of a state prison warden in her public job. This is not a matter of personal privacy.
We don’t know the facts of the Acton investigation, but we do know that this department has a history of managers and directors resigning under fire.
Acton was hired in 1995 to replace Steve MacAskill, who resigned following an investigation into prison policies and the allegation that he had returned to work one day after several hours of drinking at a Billings bar. A year earlier, MacAskill’s boss, Mickey Gamble resigned as Corrections director after public furor over his dining out at a Billings restaurant with prison inmates.
More recently, Bill Slaughter resigned in 2006 as Corrections director amid a workplace harassment controversy involving Joe Williams, who had been one of the department’s highest ranking officials. Williams resigned in 2005, four days after being placed on administrative leave.
The state later paid a monetary settlement to a Corrections employee who had complained of sexual harassment by Williams. State officials refused to make the settlement and details of the investigation public — until The Billings Gazette and other Montana newspapers went to court. The legal ruling that made the information public came about a year after the manager’s resignation and several months after the state paid out $48,500 to the employee who suffered harassment.
The Corrections Department has a new director in Mike Batista, appointed Jan. 1 by new Gov. Steve Bullock. We call on the governor and the new director to set a strong precedent for upholding the public’s right to know about its government. We ask them to tell Montanans why the women’s prison warden was on leave.