APNewsBreak: Wis. prison investigator threatened

AP News
Posted: Oct 28, 2010 11:58 AM
APNewsBreak: Wis. prison investigator threatened

The investigator who documented alleged sexual assaults of inmates by a Wisconsin prison guard was threatened by union employees and likely faced retaliation from management, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials declined to punish those who threatened Chris Kuchinski but trumped up a disciplinary case against him after he pushed for action, another investigator concluded this month.

One of the alleged threats happened in front of a department administrator who did nothing and later reprimanded Kuchinski in a move state Equal Rights Division investigator Steve Herje found "defies reason and credulity."

Herje concluded in an Oct. 5 report that the department likely violated the Wisconsin whistleblower law by retaliating against Kuchinski. The 15-year department employee is seeking back pay and reinstatement to management after taking a $20,000 pay cut and demotion to work the night shift at a different facility. The case now goes to a hearing, though a date hasn't been set.

"I stood up for justice, and now I'm a third-shift sergeant," Kuchinski, 38, told The Associated Press. "They were trying to hide this and bury me away."

Corrections spokesman Tim Le Monds said the department denies retaliating against Kuchinski and would continue fighting his claim.

Kuchinski was a supervisor at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in southwest Wisconsin when Warden John Paquin asked him to investigate guard James Trentin in early 2008. The prison suspected Trentin was bringing contraband to inmates, and one inmate had tipped them off that he may have been having sex with them.

Kuchinski's investigation found Trentin had repeatedly performed oral sex on at least three inmates, and that two others had been inappropriately touched. Trentin, who maintains his innocence, was fired and charged criminally. Sexual assault charges were dropped after Trentin entered a guilty plea to delivering articles to inmates.

Members of the local state employees' union rallied around Trentin. Guards were furious Kuchinski and other supervisors believed inmates over Trentin and put signs on their vehicles reading, "Who's next?"

Union Vice President Mark Thein warned Kuchinski in March 2008 that union officials would have him demoted out of the prison, an incident report shows. Thein did not respond to questions from AP.

A teacher at the prison also overheard a guard on March 27 say he "could kill Kuchinski," an incident report shows. The teacher said the remark was likely just frustration but serious enough to be reported to prison officials.

Kuchinski said he was concerned. A Prairie du Chien police detective asked officers to keep a close eye on Kuchinski's home, writing the next day, "Mr. Trentin has many friends/co-workers at the prison who are not happy with Mr. Kuchinski."

On April 23, 2008, Kuchinski was making rounds in the prison with Richard Schneiter, assistant administrator of the Division of Adult Institutions.

Union steward Tony Bakken told Schneiter, "The union's position is you took one of us out, now we'll take out one of you," nodding in Kuchinski's direction, according to an incident report. Bakken said this week that he doesn't recall what happened.

In a memo to Paquin after the incident, prison security director L.J. Schwandt wrote that Kuchinski "feels his position, his job/employment, and his life have been threatened."

Paquin promised "additional monitoring," but no one was disciplined.

"Based on our review, we concluded that there was not any legitimate threat against Mr. Kuchinski's life or job," Le Monds said this week.

On May 7, 2008, Kuchinski sent an e-mail to Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch titled, "Prison Rape/Staff Death Threats." He asked for a meeting "to discuss the very serious consequences of this investigation which may have a serious impact on corrections and the criminal justice system for years to come."

Kuchinski also wrote to the head of the department's rape investigation program that more needed to be done to protect investigators and inmate witnesses from union harassment.

"I cannot accept that we as a department can do nothing in terms of ensuring the search for truth is not limited by such behaviors by our own employees," he wrote.

Kuchinski soon faced a disciplinary investigation.

In February 2009, Schneiter gave Kuchinski a letter of reprimand that accused him of failing to brief Paquin about an October 2008 videoconference he set up to notify Trentin's alleged victims of the guard's plea bargain. The reprimand also alleged Kuchinski lied by claiming he did brief Paquin.

Kuchinski insisted Paquin was told about the conference and challenged his discipline. Schneiter then revised the reprimand to say Kuchinski failed to brief Deputy Warden Rick Gutknecht. Schneiter and other officials did not act on Kuchinski's appeal, and he eventually filed the retaliation complaint and took the demotion to leave the situation.

In his report for the Equal Rights Division, Herje said the notion that Kuchinski would be written up for that reason after helping apprehend Trentin "defies reason and credulity unless some intervening action took place."

"Internal inconsistencies in the accusations against Kuchinski ... offer ample evidence to support Kuchinski's claim" of retaliation, he wrote.

Kuchinski said he believes the disciplinary letter has prevented him from obtaining management positions for which he applied. The accusation of lying, he said, means he can no longer credibly work as an investigator.