City might rethink hiring ex-convicts

Last week's arrest of a Richmond County Recreation Department employee on theft charges brings the number of former inmates in that department to run afoul of the law in less than a year to three.

 

Andreas Spencer, a maintenance man at Lock and Dam Park, was arrested last week after a tip from his girlfriend led police to a stash of more than $1,500 in city property at his home in Jewell, Ga., according to sheriff's investigators.

Augusta's interim human resources director said this week that he doesn't know how many of the city's employees are on parole.

"We don't have a list that tells us who is on parole," Robby Burns said.

Sometimes, department heads don't even know about an employee's past.

City Administrator Fred Russell has said it might be time to re-evaluate the practice of hiring ex-convicts still on parole to work for the city - at least in the recreation department.

Last week, a sexual battery charge brought against Aquatics Center recreation specialist George E. Ivey was placed on the court's dead docket, and Mr. Ivey was back at work the next day, where he helps coordinate aquatics programs.

Assistant Recreation Department Director Robert Howard said his reinstatement was justified because Mr. Ivey was not found guilty of anything.

Julie Tillery, an officer of the Juvenile Court of the 10th Judicial District, said that was "ludicrous."

"Don't tell me that we don't have enough qualified people in this county that don't have criminal records to fill those jobs," she said. "I think having a second-chance program is fine, but not with our children."

In an article in The Augusta Chronicle about parolees working in the Recreation Department, Director Tom Beck defended the program and said Mr. Ivey's record with the department had been exemplary.

Mr. Ivey, alias George Ivy, Charles Jones, Charlie Jones, James Willis and Walter Woods, is on active parole until July 7.

Mr. Beck said Thursday that through the years, hiring former inmates to work on maintenance crews has been a good program, though there have been a few problems. Employees with no criminal records sometimes get in trouble, too, he said.

"One of them a few months ago was my golf pro with one of the cleanest records anyone could have," he said. "I still believe the vast majority have done a good job."

Mr. Ivey was accused in September of misdemeanor sexual battery by a 19-year-old woman who was performing community service at the Aquatics Center for speeding in a construction zone.

The victim's mother said her daughter agreed to allow the case to go into the dead docket last week after being advised that if it went to trial and Mr. Ivey was found innocent, the court would have no recourse if a future problem arose.

The dead docket puts a defendant on a kind of probation, and the court could revisit the case if it is deemed necessary.

Mr. Ivey was hired by the Recreation Department 17 months after being released from Montgomery State Prison in 2001. He was first arrested in 1980 on burglary charges and was later arrested 11 more times.

He served four prison sentences for crimes including aggravated assault, robbery and burglary, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections Web site and city personnel records.

The city does run background checks on potential employees, and if the applicant has a criminal record, that information is turned over to the department head, who can choose to hire that person or not, Mr. Burns said.

But some department heads apparently have parolees in their ranks and don't know it.

For example, Utilities Department Director Max Hicks said he did not have a parolee in his department, but after further checking, he discovered he did - an inspector.

Mr. Hicks said his compassion as a person would lead him to say the person needs a job, but the public-service side says the city needs to protect the public.

A third ex-convict, Robert Richmond Jr., was fired from his job at the Sand Hills Community Center in July after he was arrested for a second time last year.

He was charged with felony trafficking in cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

Mr. Spencer was charged with theft by taking after investigators found items belonging to the recreation department, including a heater, hedge trimmer, paint, ant killer and a mower.

He was convicted of aggravated assault in Glascock County in 2001 and served four years in prison, according to the Department of Corrections Web site.

Some recreation center managers and employees said they were stunned to learn that ex-convicts were working nearby and they had not been told.

Mrs. Tillery said parents have no idea their children are around convicted felons at recreation sites.

"Eighty percent of the people the recreation department serves are children," she said. "If parents knew a convicted felon was anywhere around, they wouldn't let their children anywhere around there."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.