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Published: Saturday, 4/30/2005

TARTA fires 6 for not listing violations

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For the second time in two years, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority has fired several drivers for failing to fully list traffic or misdemeanor criminal convictions when they applied for their jobs.

This time, maintenance department employees were fired too.

Six employees - three part-time drivers and three mechanics or maintenance workers - were terminated between April 14 and 20 after TARTA officials ran records checks on the transit authority's entire payroll and turned up unreported convictions, primarily for moving violations but also disorderly conduct, assault, and aggravated menacing against one of the mechanics.

James Gee, the transit authority's general manager, said the unreported offenses probably would have kept TARTA from hiring the six, had it known about them. "There's a lot of responsibility involved in being either a bus driver or a mechanic," Mr. Gee said.

Four of the affected workers were hired, however, after similar revelations in 2003 led to the firings of four drivers and prompted the transit authority to add a review of Lucas County misdemeanor records to the background-check package it buys from a local contractor.

Tim Villa, the owner of Data Research Inc., said his company got its Toledo Municipal Court recidivist reports through another firm, M&D Records Research, which reported that there were no records on the four workers in question.

Maxine Pimienta, the owner of M&D, said that occurred because there was probably a data-entry error by a court clerk.

Court staff are provided with names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers, "and we have to depend on what they give us back," Ms. Pimienta said. Errors occur, she said, "probably more often than we want to know."

Since March, Mr. Villa said, Data Research has obtained its municipal court information through a direct computer link with the court, which should reduce the risk of errors.

The other two employees TARTA fired both worked in the mechanical department.

One of those two was Joseph Coon, who was hired in September, 2002, as a bus cleaner. Mr. Coon acknowledged yesterday that he omitted a 1991 conviction for reckless driving from his job application, but maintained that TARTA should have noticed that he left the question about vehicular-related convictions blank and asked him about it before his 90-day probationary period expired.

"I answered the application to the best of my knowledge, truthfully and honestly," Mr. Coon said, adding that he skipped the driving-record question because he wasn't sure and then forgot to go back to it.

"It wasn't right, the way they did it," said James W. Parker, Jr., a part-time driver who, with a hire date of Feb. 8, was the most junior of those terminated. "They did a background check too. These were things that happened 10, 20 years ago that I didn't even think about. I thought three or five years ago was enough."

All six workers have grieved the firings through their union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 697. "We will be fighting for them through the grievance procedures, as we would for any employee," local president Edward Dustman said yesterday.

Three of the four drivers fired in 2003 grieved their terminations, and of those three, one was reinstated. An undisclosed number of other drivers identified in the 2003 checks received reprimands.

Among the others fired this time was Robert Stamper, a mechanical department employee whose Dec. 7 conviction for disorderly conduct and March, 2003, conviction for a brake violation represent the only counts fresher than 1999 on the six workers' records.

The others were mechanical department employee Anthony Plicinski and part-time drivers Jennifer Duffy and Betty Bennett.

A 1998 loitering conviction against Mr. Plicinski is the only non-vehicular count against any of those fired other than Mr. Stamper, who was convicted of assault and aggravated menacing in 1983 and disorderly conduct in 1985 and last year.

The most recent conviction on Ms. Bennett's record was a 1996 stop sign violation. Ms. Bennett said she wrote on her application that she had "at least two" traffic convictions and couldn't remember how many more before those.

"They let me work for one year, and then they fire me?" she said. "They went back to 1982, who's gonna remember that far? It's up to them to do the background check if they want to."

And Mr. Coon questioned why a single, decade-old reckless driving conviction should even have mattered when he was hired, considering his job is just cleaning buses.

"I don't really want to go back there, but I need a job, and it's hard to find a job around here, especially at what I was making," he said. "To me, TARTA's just [messing] with people's lives."

He also said that there was discussion among the union members about a supposed list of more than 40 transit authority employees who might possibly be disciplined for job-application errors.

But Mr. Gee said the six who were fired are the only ones identified for discipline, and that TARTA would "typically not" hire someone with a reckless driving conviction even as a bus cleaner.

"He could be driving a vehicle on a city street, even if the job isn't driving a bus," the general manager said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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