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Saying his first five months as Corrections director have been "a bit overwhelming," Tom Patterson on Wednesday sought to assure state senators that he is improving the department's transparency and eliminating favoritism exposed in a blistering legislative audit last year.

Patterson, who took over as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in January, also lobbied lawmakers for $80 million to build housing for 480 new beds - a request that was not warmly received.

He said he has been "rigorous" in addressing systemic favoritism identified in the audit by shaking up the department's senior leadership and sending a message that the department will promote from within.

"It's based on merit rather than who one might know," Patterson told members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

The audit, released in December, found several examples of high-ranking officers who avoided punishment for wrongdoing and who violated policy to receive choice posts. It also found that more than 100 Corrections officers failed to get the required training to maintain their peace officer certification.

In January, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. reassigned then-Corrections chief Scott Carver, who downplayed the problems, and replaced him with Patterson. In February, Patterson began a series of shake-ups within the department.

Patterson said Wednesday that the legislative audit has been "very helpful" in spurning change within the department, adding that he reopened several old internal audits and planned to respond to the issues raised in them.

He told lawmakers he would make it "unusual" for retired Corrections officials to return to top positions, allowing others to gain promotions.

Addressing the audit's allegations of wrongdoing by Corrections officials, Patterson said the department's investigator now reports to him, and department disciplinary records are in better order.

When complaints involving his appointed officials arise, Patterson said he would allow an outside agency to investigate - something he said did not happen in the past.

Under questioning by Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, Patterson said he was unsure if the department had a process to take citizen complaints.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, took issue with Patterson's request for more beds, saying that new drug treatment programs would postpone the need for those beds.

Hickman asked Patterson to have more confidence in the program's potential.

"Ye of little faith need to get more faith," Hickman said.

Some problems cited in the audit

An audit released in December said favoritism was widespread in Utah's Department of Corrections before Tom Patterson took over. Among the alleged wrongdoing:

* Then-Corrections Executive Director Scott Carver was asked to hire a deputy from outside the agency to root out favoritism. He instead hired a person "directly related to and involved with many of the favoritism concerns."

* A senior officer allowed an unauthorized person to come into the prison. An officer reported the security breach. The senior officer received modest punishment. The officer who reported the violation was then transferred and told to "get a thicker skin."