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Prison Agency Wants Parole Agents Out

MADISON, Wisc. (CN) - The Wisconsin Department of Corrections sued a parole agents union, challenging an arbitrator's decision to reinstate two agents who were charged with possession of cocaine. The drug charges were dropped and the agents pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction, according to the complaints and an arbitrator's ruling.

The state agency sued Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24-AFL-CIO in Dane County Court.

Paul Marx, 29, and Bobbi Knar, 27, were charged with possession of cocaine and obstructing an officer in a criminal complaint filed in Dane County in September 2007. John Bleich, a felon who is doing time in prison, accused the agents of taking cocaine at a party Bleich hosted, which allegedly was attended by people on parole or probation.

According to the arbitrator's findings, while Bleich was in the Dane County jail on charges of contractor fraud, he provided information about the officers' alleged misconduct in hopes of preventing revocation of his probation.

The findings state that Bleich told a Dane County narcotics officer that he partied with the two parole officers and two other people on May 25-26, 2006.

Bleich told the investigator that the five people played cards, drank heavily and snorted cocaine at his party.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Bleich said the drug use started after 10 p.m., with small amounts of cocaine produced from baggies - one of them from Parole Agent Marx. The Journal reported in 2007 that Bleich said the five chipped in for an 8-ball at about 2 a.m. and bought a second one at about 7:30a.m. - about the same time Knar and Marx decided to call in sick to work.

The arbitrator found it undisputed that the others at the party discovered that Knar and Marx were parole agents. The Journal reported that Bleich found this out when a friend told him, "Dude, you'll never guess what they do."

The arbitrator found, however, that the parties "vigorously disagree whether while at the party the Grievants ingested cocaine or knew that Bleich was on probation."

After an initial investigation, Marx and Knar were placed on paid administrative leave, and were reprimanded for violating the Employer's Fraternization Policy and for failing to provide truthful information about the party, according to the arbitrator's findings. Marx was also cited for failing to list a sick day on his time sheet.

Two more investigations were launched after the criminal complaint was filed, including one that resulted from allegations that there were pictures on Knar's cell phone that showed her ingesting a substance that resembled cocaine, according to the arbitrator.

In May 2008 Marx and Knar pleaded guilty to obstructing an officer in a plea deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop the cocaine possession charges if the two completed a First Offender Program, the arbitrator found.

On June 4, 2008, the prison department fired them, citing violations of "Work Rules No. 6, prohibiting obstructing, and No. 11, prohibiting criminal violations."

But the officers won a round on Aug. 3 this year, when arbitrator Christine Ver Ploeg determined that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections had "just cause to suspend, but not to discharge, the Grievants."

Ver Ploeg ruled that the written reprimands should have been removed from the officers' personnel files within 12 months of their not committing any further violations, and that the reprimands could not be used to discipline the officers again after that point.

Ver Ploeg also determined that the pictures of Knar on her cell phone, which allegedly showed her ingesting cocaine, were actually photos taken at a graduation party where a tobacco product known as "Sniff Snuff" was given as a gag gift

Other pictures from Knar's phone "showed her aunts, and even her grandmother, participating in the fun."

Ver Ploeg agreed there was enough evidence to discipline the officers, but did not feel it was enough to warrant a discharge. She noted that other cases that involved more serious offenses committed by parole agents did not result in discharge and said that those that did lead to firings involved significantly more serious misconduct, including manufacturing with intent to deliver, drug trafficking and maintaining long-term drug relationships with offenders.

The union challenged the firings and the arbitrator ordered the prisons to reinstate the agents. The DOC says the arbitrator exceeded her powers, in violation of law and public policy. It wants the reinstatements vacated.

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