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FBI probing corruption in wake of prison break

The FBI in Albany has opened a corruption inquiry focusing on employees and inmates at the maximum-security prison in northern New York state where two convicted killers escaped this month, one official with knowledge of the matter said Monday.

The prison break, discovered June 6 at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora prompted a manhunt involving more than 1,000 state troopers, federal agents and other law enforcement officers, which ended Sunday when the second escapee, David Sweat, 35, was shot and captured about 30 miles from the prison. The first escapee, Richard W. Matt, 49, was shot and killed Friday.

The FBI investigation, which the official said was focused on drug trafficking and other possible criminal conduct, is likely to raise the scrutiny of prison officials, their conduct and the apparent lack of security and oversight at the institution in the months preceding the escape.

Paul Holstein, the chief division counsel for the FBI in Albany, said his office does not confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.

FBI agents had been assisting the State Police and the state prison agency in their investigation of the escape, and an agent from the bureau’s Albany office, Timothy Coll, was present when a corrections officer charged in connection with the escape was questioned, according to court papers. But the expansion of the agency’s role into a separate corruption inquiry, which was reported Monday afternoon by CNN, was not publicly disclosed until the manhunt had concluded.

News of the federal inquiry also came one day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, reiterated that the state’s inspector general, Catherine Leahy Scott, was conducting a full investigation into the policies and procedures at the prison and the circumstances that led to the escape. He first announced that inquiry June 15.

Details of the escape raise questions about how the officers who patrol the honors cellblock at Clinton, where Sweat and Matt were housed, could have missed the inmates’ preparations, which are believed to have gone on for weeks, perhaps months. Night after night, officials said, the two slipped through openings they had cut in the back of their cells, climbed down five flights of piping to the tunnels beneath the prison, spent hours cutting through a brick wall and steam pipe, and then returned to their cells.

More than a dozen investigators from the office of Leahy Scott have been at the prison in the past two weeks, including a forensic computer specialist and auditor, as well as certified fraud examiners and several former prosecutors from offices across the state.

Prison rules require hourly bed checks by the two corrections officers assigned to the cell block.

The officers are supposed to use their flashlights to make the checks of the 180 cells. Regulations require that a guard be able to see the inmates’ skin and detect breathing. In practice, according to interviews with several current and past officers, inspections became lax over time, and inmates were typically permitted to sleep entirely covered by sheets and blankets.

Joyce E. Mitchell, a civilian employee, and Gene Palmer, an officer, have been arrested on charges that they aided the two inmates by smuggling contraband into the prison. In a statement to the State Police, Palmer acknowledged bringing the two men tools and, at least once, helping Matt hide items during an inspection of the cells.

Palmer, who is accused of giving the men pliers and a screwdriver and who is out on bail, appeared in justice court in Plattsburgh, New York, on Monday. His lawyer formally waived his felony hearing and requested that the matter be transferred to county court, said Andrew Wylie, the Clinton County district attorney. He also said that escape charges were expected.

Wylie said that he had not seen the statements that Sweat had made to the police, although he had heard Cuomo’s remarks describing Sweat’s comments. Wylie said that from “the reports,” his understanding was that Sweat has told investigators that Palmer had no involvement in his escape - that it was only he, Mitchell and Matt.