Partying on the city's dime

Our view: If the city is going to hire people with serious criminal records, it at least needs to know who they are and whether they can be trusted to do the jobs they're given

March 28, 2011

The arrest of 13 Department of Transportation employees who are accused of participating in a regular payday ritual of drinking and gambling on the job raises any number of questions, the most important of which is whether the city even knew that several of the men had prior criminal records. As The Sun's Peter Hermann reported this week, six of the men had been convicted of serious offenses in the past, including drug distribution and weapons charges, while a seventh was arrested twice on assault charges but never convicted. Given the severity of their offenses there's a real question whether any of them should ever have been on the city payroll at all.

City officials likely did not know the full extent of the men's criminal histories because a City Council ordinance passed several years ago removed the prior criminal history question from some city employment application forms, including those for low-level positions such as the ones held by the men involved in this case. It's possible these workers — who were employed mostly as laborers or seasonal aides earning less than $29,000 a year — may have slipped under the radar.

Under the present policy, applicants for jobs of greater responsibility or positions of trust must pass a criminal background check before being hired. But even then a prior conviction doesn't automatically disqualify them. Officials must also consider the relationship between the offense and the applicant's suitability for the job, the number and types of convictions, how long ago they occurred, the severity of the crime and evidence of rehabilitation.

That seems fair in a city where many people have had youthful brushes with the law but are trying to turn their lives around. For many of them, the city may be the employer of last resort, and a blanket ban on hiring anyone with any kind of criminal history could be counterproductive if the goal is to give such people the opportunity for a fresh start.

But giving someone a fresh start doesn't mean the city should be willfully ignorant of an applicant's background. The policy for higher-level employees allows the city not only to make an informed choice about hiring but also to keep a closer eye on a worker if necessary. There's no reason that shouldn't also be the case for low-level workers like the ones involved in this case. After all, any job paid for with city tax dollars is a position of trust.

It was an anonymous tip to the Transportation Department that alerted the city's new inspector general, David N. McClintock, to the unseemly behavior going on during the weekly Friday sessions where these employees are accused of gambling and drinking on the city's dime. One has to wonder what kind of supervision was being exercised if they were able to skip out of work for such an activity, and how come no seemed to notice their absence from the job they were supposed to be doing.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration is attempting to put a positive spin on the development, noting that Ms. Rawlings-Blake hired Mr. McClintock and has worked to give his office more resources. A spokesman says Ms. Rawlings-Blake is committed to weeding out "bad apple" employees and contractors who are giving the overwhelming majority of dedicated workers and reliable contractors a bad name. The I.G.'s office moved quickly to put a stop to the waste represented by this case, but it's disturbing that such antics apparently have been going on for years right under the noses of Transportation Department officials.

The supervisor responsible for men in this incident has been suspended without pay pending an investigation. But it is hard not to wonder how many similar Friday revelers are wasting taxpayer money in other city departments, and how long it will take city officials to find out who they are and deal with them. As laudable as it is that the city has dealt severely with these men, and with the police officers recently accused of engaging in a kickback scheme with towing companies, these incidents nonetheless present something of a Catch-22 for the mayor. If she doesn't make an example out of workers like these, people will assume she's letting people get away with misconduct, and if she does, such examples only provide evidence for taxpayers' cynicism.

Breaking that cycle will be difficult, but revisiting the policy on background checks for prospective employees would be a good start.

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