Hoffman confirmed by Rules Committee as state parole chief

Senate Republicans are flexing their muscles on criminal justice issues–with a little help from Mod Caucus Democrats. Last month, they picked up three Democratic votes in a successful effort to defeat a bill that would have given a $75,000 wrongful imprisonment payment to a man they say is a serial rapist.

Now they have their eye on a bigger prize–taking down Thomas Hoffman, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nominee to head the parole division at the Department of Corrections.

Hoffman, 52, is a career police officer and a Republican. But some GOP senators claim he’s already cut corners since being tasked to run the parole system last August.

At issue is an alleged attempt by Hoffman to undercut Board of Parole hearings and give more discretion to Corrections staff on parole matters. In a press release at the end of June, Senator Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, said Hoffman “openly advocates violating the law.” Senator Jeff Denham, R-Merced, termed him “a threat to public safety.”

Statistically, defeating the nomination will be difficult. Hoffman needs only 21 votes, six less than is needed to turn back an appropriations measure like the one they stopped last month. But under the Senate’s new math, it could be possible–especially if they are able to mobilize victim’s rights groups to pressure a few key Democratic senators.

While Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, supports Hoffman, he hasn’t been too keen to facilitate open debate on the nomination, some Republicans claim. During his Senate Rules hearing last month, they say, Perata cut short Hoffman’s question-and-answer period after Senator Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, began to aggressively question him. Hoffman passed Rules by a 3-2 vote.

“I’ve seen steaks grilled longer than Hoffman,” said Denham’s chief of staff, Jim Kjol, of the hearing.

With several moderate Democrats moving from the Assembly to the Senate, Republicans have a clear strategy for targeting the votes they need. The short list begins with those who joined them in opposing SB 242, a $215.8 million appropriations bill which included the $75,000 wrongful imprisonment payment to a convicted rapist who was cleared of a murder charge, carried by Senator Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. Those votes came from Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana; Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Montclair; and Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach.

Senate minority leader Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, has not taken a position on the nomination, according to press secretary Tom Collins. Ackerman was the only Republican vote for the appropriations bill Republicans defeated last month.

“The Senator still needs to speak to our Rules members before he takes a position,” Collins said.

Other moderate Democrats who may not want a vote for Hoffman on their record, they say, include Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, and Denise Ducheny, D-Chula Vista. Meanwhile, Senator Ed Vincent, D-Inglewood, has missed numerous votes this year with an illness, though he did make in to vote in favor of SB 242.

The pressure from victims’ groups has already begun. On June 28, Christine Ward, executive director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, sent a letter to all Senators urging Hoffman’s defeat. She referred to him as “sneaky” and accused him of trying to “undercut parole board hearings.”

A vote on Hoffman will almost certainly come soon. Schwarzenegger appointed him last August, and the Senate has a year to vote on his confirmation. With legislative recess scheduled for July 20, Hoffman will come up for a vote within the next two weeks, according to Perata spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

Republicans lost a similar vote in April when the Senate voted 28-11 to confirm Linda Shelton as parole commissioner. Some GOP Senators took issue with several votes to release violent felons that she made after being appointed in February.

But Hoffman opponents claim they have strong case, based on a series of May emails between Hoffman and Corrections staff. In one, Hoffman writes to Scott Kernan, chief deputy secretary of Adult Operations at Corrections, “the political and social climate is right for us to push through a rewrite” of regulations around parole board hearings. He goes on to ask “Would you like us to take a lead on the rewrite? My staff and I are confident this would have a significant impact on our

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