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Nominee for head of Kansas prison system has checkered past

May 31, 2019 - 6:57 pm

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly's choice to be the next head of the state prison system was criticized by an Idaho judge earlier this year for giving "disingenuous" testimony as a top corrections official there in a lawsuit over access to execution records.

Kelly's office has said Jefferey Zmuda has a "long record of success" during a 30-year career in the Idaho prison system, where he is now the deputy director. The Democratic governor announced his appointment as Kansas corrections secretary last week, and Zmuda is scheduled to take over July 1.

But The Wichita Eagle reports that over the past year, Zmuda has been entangled in a lawsuit in Idaho state court aimed at forcing the release of records relating to the execution of an inmate in 2011 and another in 2012. Idaho officials have kept finding more documents over the past year, despite previous assurances by Zmuda that all known records were collected.

While Zmuda can begin running the Kansas prison system this summer, his appointment must be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate for him to stay on the job. The Legislature is out of session until January.

"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," said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

Earlier this month, the Senate rejected a Kelly nominee for the Kansas Court of Appeals, the state's second-highest court, over his political tweets in 2017.

Zmuda is replacing Interim Secretary Roger Werholtz, who agreed to run the department temporarily when Kelly took office in January. He will take over a prison system that saw multiple riots in 2017 and 2018 and is plagued by short staffing.

Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All defended Zmuda, saying that he recognizes that Idaho's prison system "could have done some things better" in the course of the lawsuit.

"However, he has worked with staff to conduct multiple searches for records to meet the court's order," All said.

In Idaho, corrections Director Josh Tewalt called Zmuda "a person of high integrity and a great leader."

"He'll wear the blame when it's undeserved but will be the first one to share credit," Tewalt said.

A University of Idaho professor sought the state's execution records in 2017, and her request was mostly denied. She sued, accusing prison officials of withholding documents that included records showing how the state had obtained execution drugs.

Zmuda said in an affidavit taken in July 2018 that state officials had collected "all known documents" related to the executions.

District Judge Lynn Norton, based in the Idaho's state capital of Boise, ruled in March that the prison system acted frivolously and in bad faith in mostly denying the professor's request for records.

The judge also concluded that officials had not conducted a diligent search for records before Zmuda filed his affidavit. Court records show that Zmuda emailed corrections employees the day after, directing them to search for documents.

"The emphasis on the word 'known' in a sworn affidavit filed with this Court is disingenuous," Norton wrote.

In his affidavit, Zmuda acknowledged record-keeping problems, saying "we have previously failed to organize documents properly."


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