Officials at the Moose Lake Sex Offenders Program began unbolting the two dozen 50-inch plasma television sets at the center on Tuesday, just hours after Gov. Tim Pawlenty called the purchase "boneheaded" and ordered a search to find out who made the decision.

The TVs, costing $1,576 apiece with $706 mounting brackets, were ordered last October and installed at the new $45 million treatment center when it opened in July.

State officials said the televisions, which were mounted in common areas, made it easier to supervise patients at the 400-bed facility.

But when Pawlenty learned of the purchase in a Star Tribune story on Tuesday, he ordered the televisions removed immediately and sold if possible.

"Clearly somebody just made a boneheaded decision, and I'm going to reverse it," he said.

Later, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said that Pawlenty wanted to go even further. "The governor believes those involved should be reprimanded, at a minimum," McClung said. A spokesperson for the state sex offender program said a review is underway.

But DFLers say the episode points a finger at top officials in the Pawlenty administration -- not a low-level bureaucrat -- who have repeatedly exercised poor oversight of the state's many agencies and commissions.

"It's part of a pattern in this administration of agencies doing things without any kind of leadership or guidance from the top," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, vice chairman of the House State Government Finance Division committee. He said that Pawlenty "doesn't get involved in the management of his agencies until he gets embarrassed."

Pawlenty's pledge to find out who had authorized the purchase, Winkler said, was an attempt to divert attention from high-ranking officials, and showed that "the buck stops nowhere."

Costly, controversial program

The televisions, which cost $58,652, have renewed the spotlight on the state's controversial and costly civil commitment treatment program. Since its inception, no patient has yet been successfully treated and released by the courts from the program, whose population stands at 566 patients and is expected to nearly double in seven years.

Even though the newest facility for sex offenders is just three months old, state legislators have been briefed on a new proposal for another $96 million facility in Moose Lake to accommodate the growing numbers.

A state purchase order showed that the TVs were ordered five months before Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman sought $16 million in emergency funds from the Legislature last March for the sex offender program. He warned that without extra funds, program employees might not get paid and payments to vendors would be delayed. State officials attributed much of the shortfall to construction delays at Moose Lake.

Poor money controls

In January Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles sounded the alarm on what he said was increasingly poor financial oversight of state agencies. The state's auditing controls, he said, were "significantly flawed," with no way to determine how much state money had been misused, stolen or misplaced because of a lack of internal controls and proper auditing oversight.

There is no indication that the television purchase was improperly made, but legislators say they were never made aware that Moose Lake officials intended to furnish the facility with 50-inch TVs.

The state Department of Administration said Tuesday that the televisions -- which were purchased even though most patients have their own TVs in their rooms -- were approved by the Department of Human Services, which oversees the state sex offender program.

"The decision is [by] the Department of Human Services," said Jim Schwartz, a spokesman for the Department of Administration.

State records show that the televisions were part of $1.45 million spent to outfit Moose Lake, including $594,270 for furniture, $96,819 for mattresses, $15,856 for phone booths and $557 for a pizza oven.

Dennis Benson, executive director of the sex offender program since March 2008, said in an earlier interview that he has "tried very hard to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollar."

He added: "I was here when they were ordered. ... I was here the day that the boxes came into the unit." But, Benson said, the specifications for the TVs were written before he took over the program.

Legislators on both sides expressed dismay at what most families still consider a luxury.

Said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a DFL gubernatorial candidate: "My family, like a lot of Minnesota families, we don't have a flat-screen TV."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673