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Published: Friday, 5/2/2003

TARTA suspends 4 for data omissions

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority suspended four bus drivers without pay yesterday for falsifying information on their job applications about their motor vehicle or criminal histories.

Unless the four can explain why they failed to list various traffic and misdemeanor offenses as requested on their application forms, TARTA intends to fire them, said James Gee, the authority's general manager.

More drivers may be disciplined based on results of an internal investigation. Those who have been suspended represent the clearest violations, Mr. Gee said.

Suspended pending disciplinary hearings are Jose Cardenas, 43, who applied to TARTA in June, 2001, and was hired the following September; Melvin L. Johnson, 50, who applied in April, 1997, and was hired the following September; Emery C. Mitchell, 37, who applied in April, 2002, and was hired the following June, and Paul L. Waites III, 36, who applied in May, 2001, and was hired the following September.

None of the four has any felony convictions, which the TARTA screening process in effect when they were hired would have revealed, Mr. Gee said.

Court records show Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Johnson each had more than two dozen traffic and misdemeanor convictions that they did not list on their TARTA applications; that Mr. Waites did not report 17 convictions, including driving under suspension, failure to obey a police order, and two for obstructing official business, and that Mr. Cardenas failed to list 10 convictions, including driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and a weapons violation.

John Destatte, business manager for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 697, which represents TARTA drivers and mechanics, said he was disturbed by the suspensions because he had received no indications that any of the four had disciplinary records with TARTA.

“These are good employees who do a good and conscientious job driving a bus,” Mr. Destatte said, adding later: “These names do not jump out at me as disciplinary problems.”

Mr. Gee said that he knows none of the four suspended drivers very well, “and the fact that I don't know them means they're probably good drivers. I tend to hear about the bad ones.”

But the convictions they failed to disclose on their job applications probably would have kept them from being hired had TARTA known their histories, Mr. Gee said, because they would have been flagged as liability risks.

Asked if he thought the drivers had ever posed a threat to passenger or public safety, he said: “I don't think so, but I can't take that chance.”

Mr. Waites - who acknowledged three speeding convictions on his application but wrote, truthfully, they all were more than four years old - said last night he thought the only convictions he needed to list were felonies or traffic offenses less than four years old.

“I was looking at my driving record, my points,” Mr. Waites said. “I didn't lie. I put down the information that I thought I was supposed to.”

Mr. Cardenas too said he believed he only had to list recent traffic offenses, though he gave a different time frame - “in the last five years, or seven years.

“That's the way I understood it,” he said.

The application form they and the others filled out, however, is not specific about the type of convictions requested, nor does it specify a time period. One question asked, “Other than for traffic violations, have you been convicted in a court of law?” followed by “If yes, give details, including dates.” The next question asked, “Have you had any moving traffic violations?” then “If yes, how many?” followed by two lines upon which details are to be listed.

The only question that included a time frame inquired about applicants' involvement in any traffic accidents within the prior seven years.

Mr. Cardenas said his 1989 weapons conviction was for carrying a BB gun the previous year. He said he did not consider it relevant because he was carrying the gun to protect himself against a recently released prison inmate who might have had a grudge against him.

Mr. Waites said his 1995 convictions for reckless driving, failure to obey an officer's signal, and obstructing official business stemmed from an incident in which he was fleeing a would-be carjacker and drove past a police cruiser at high speed.

Both he and Mr. Cardenas attributed their records to youthful indiscretions that occurred long before they applied to work for TARTA.

“I'm not that same person now,” Mr. Cardenas said. “I've changed my life around.”

“I was kind of young. I drove recklessly,” Mr. Waites said. “But after the points started piling up, I slowed down. My driving record is a lot better now.”

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mitchell could not be reached for comment last night.

On his application, Mr. Johnson admitted to two speeding convictions, but court records list reckless operation and resisting arrest in 1981, driving under suspension in 1985, and two convictions for driving without a license later that year, plus several more recent, lesser convictions.

Mr. Mitchell's record includes disorderly conduct convictions in 1985, 1986, and 1987, an illegal weapon possession conviction in 1986, and a petty theft conviction in 1996, none of which appeared on his TARTA application. He also has a drug-possession conviction for which he was charged before applying to TARTA, but for which he was convicted afterward, in July, 2002. Because the drug conviction occurred after he was hired, Mr. Mitchell had no obligation to tell TARTA about it, Mr. Gee said.

TARTA policy and federal regulations require drivers to notify the authority within 30 days of a traffic conviction. The authority reviews drivers' motor vehicle records annually, but nontraffic offenses aren't addressed in the drivers' labor contract. “That's something we're trying to work with the union on,” Mr. Gee said.

The transit authority's investigation was sparked by an inquiry to the agency by WTVG-TV, Channel 13, about 18 drivers' records.

Mr. Gee said some of the 18 likely will be cleared of any wrongdoing because they were forthcoming with data.

Two other drivers were fired recently for falsifying information on their job applications, Mr. Gee said.

Ihab Elgabi, 39, was fired in September, three months after his hiring, based on a tip from Toledo Public Schools.

Steven Traudt, 43, was fired Jan. 31 after more than six years on the job based on an anonymous tip, he said. Local 697 has a grievance pending over Mr. Traudt's firing.

TARTA has added a step to its screening process it believes would have revealed more about the records of the suspended drivers, Mr. Gee said.

In addition to tracing Ohio felony records, three-year driving histories, and prison records, Toledo-based Data Research, Inc., the authority's background-check consultant, will perform a criminal search revealing all misdemeanor convictions from a county of TARTA's choosing.

For most applicants, Mr. Gee said, that county is likely to be Lucas, but another location might be chosen if an applicant has lived somewhere else for a large part of his or her adult life.

That TARTA will check for additional records, Mr. Gee said, does not represent an admission by the authority that its previous background-check policy was inadequate.

“We have tough policies in place already,” he said. “We've won five national safety awards. We wouldn't win safety awards if we weren't doing something right.”



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