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Felon hired for city staff
Mar 21, 2006 12:00 am
March 13, 2006
Lebanon city government has an unknown number of convicted felons as employees, including some with offenses ranging from drug charges to forgery.
Some of those felons are members of Lebanon Mayor Don Fox's family, one wrinkle in a brewing controversy where Fox and the city personnel office disagree with the city's legal counsel over the interpretation of policy designed to keep criminals off the city payroll.
Both City Attorney Andy Wright and Fox said it was unknown how many felons work for city government, creating a legal issue for city leaders.
"The problem with doing anything...on that issue is that the city has a precedent of hiring people with felony convictions though the city has a policy against it," Wright said.
Fox maintains the issue is not over enforcing city policy, but whether or not felons should be barred from employment at all.
"What we are saying if we don't hire them, is that if a young person makes a mistake then their life is over," Fox said. "When you make a mistake you should have a chance to right your life."
A fight between two Lebanon city employees last month that ended up in criminal charges against one and a hospital stay for another also turned up another set of facts – both city employees are convicted felons.
City sanitation worker Chauncey D. Majors, 33, was charged with aggravated assault for the alleged Feb. 28 beating of fellow sanitation worker David Randall Fox Jr. A search of public records show both men have felony convictions on their records.
Majors was convicted in 1995 as an accessory after the fact for selling cocaine, a Class E felony according to court records.
Fox Jr. – a nephew of Mayor Don Fox according to city personnel records – was convicted in 2002 of aggravated burglary, a Class C felony, and four counts of forgery up to $1,000, a Class E felony.
Circuit Court Clerk staff and court records confirmed both men's felony convictions remain in place and have not been expunged.
In addition, one of the city's newest employees is also a convicted felon and a relative of the mayor.
Rockford Alan Cox, 25, was hired January 31 as a meter reader, according to Cox's personnel file as well as a document listing new city employees distributed to the Lebanon City Council last month. City personnel records show Cox is the mayor's grandson.
An extensive search of public records by the newspaper shows Cox was convicted in 2000 of conspiracy to possess cocaine, a Class C felony, after pleading guilty to the charge before Wilson County Criminal Judge J.O. Bond.
Cox was sentenced to six years of probation, eventually violating that probation twice in 2001.
Cox was granted post-trial diversion and the expungement of his record by Bond in April 2003 on the condition Cox join the armed services, something the court record shows Cox never did.
Finally, in July 2003, Bond revoked Cox's post-trial diversion and expungement, reinstating his felony conviction.
Cox's hiring this year was the second time he has been hired by the City of Lebanon since his conviction. City records show Cox was hired in April 2002 into the city's maintenance department.
Both Bond and Assistant District Attorney Bobby Hibbett told The Lebanon Democrat Cox's felony conviction is still in place, with Hibbett noting Mayor Fox called him to inquire about the status of Cox's conviction.
"When I told Don Fox he (Cox) remained a convicted felon, I told him he needed to call (an attorney) and file another request for pretrial diversion," Hibbett said.
'It's Simple English'
City Personnel Director Jim Henderson defended the decision to hire at least one of the two Fox relatives, saying the city attorney's reading of Lebanon municipal policy regarding the hiring of convicted felons is wrong.
"Its not like it was a Valentine's Day Massacre type of charge, or even anything prohibited by our policy," Henderson told The Lebanon Democrat in an interview last month concerning Cox's drug related felony conviction.
Henderson said city officials were aware of Fox Jr.'s forgery charges but did not run a background check.
Henderson's sentiment is at the heart of a disagreement between his office and Wright's over the real meaning of a key passage in the Lebanon City government document "Personnel Rules and Regulations."
Section 5 of the city's personnel rules, called "Rejection of Applicants," says the personnel director "shall reject" an applicant under six different sets of conditions.
Section 5.4 of the city personnel rules addresses the issue of applicants with criminal convictions, saying applications shall be rejected for employment if, "The applicant habitually uses drugs or intoxicants; or, has been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude or other offenses that would reflect upon his ability to perform public service or for which a jail sentence is imposed."
Wright maintains the language means anyone with any type of felony conviction on their record must be rejected for city employment. Henderson says his own reading of the language is that the phrase "involving moral turpitude" applies to both felony and misdemeanor convictions applicants might have.
Under criminal law in Tennessee, sex crimes are the foremost examples of "crimes of moral turpitude" according to attorneys consulted by the newspaper for this story.
Henderson maintained the language cleared both Fox Jr. and Cox for city employment because their felony convictions did not involve moral turpitude as spelled out under Tennessee criminal code.
Wright, the city's attorney and a former Metropolitan Nashville Police officer, disagrees, saying all felons should be barred from city employment based on the written policy.
"My position is, that means any felony or any crime involving moral turpitude – two different things," Wright said. "The way it is written, can it be interpreted a different way? I'm certainly open to that suggestion., but I don't interpret it that way."
"It seems that moral turpitude comes into play," Henderson said, referring to section 5.4 of the city personnel rules. "This is not that kind of matter."
Fox agreed with Henderson, saying the language was plain.
"Andy appears to be the only one to have this moral turpitude definition," Fox said. "...You don't not hire them because of a misinterpretation."
"It's simple English," Fox added.
'A Good Question'
Both Wright and Fox agree there is no way to know right now how many convicted felons are working for the City of Lebanon. Wright said he has been told by other city department heads there are other convicted felons elsewhere in the city beyond Fox Jr., Cox and Majors.
"That is a good question," Wright said. "I have been told that we have other convicted felons on the payroll."
Wright and Henderson agree that because of existing city practices, not hiring felons in the future could put the city in legal jeopardy because of past practices.
"I also have an opinion too, from some personnel state-wide consultants involving that, too," Henderson said. "You cannot, according to them, according to the courts, not not hire someone because they have been convicted of certain crimes."
"You can't be discriminatory in your hiring and say, 'Hey, you've been convicted of spitting on the sidewalk, and for the rest of your life you're not going to be able to get a job,'" Henderson added.
"It would be discriminatory," Wright agreed of not hiring felons into city jobs based on current city practice. "It would be selective."
Fox said due to the questions over his relatives and Majors he has asked Henderson to make sure all new hires have full background checks, part of a new contract with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.
"I have issued instruction to Jim Henderson on the background checks," Fox said. "I found out some department heads do it and some don't. He (Henderson) is doing a contract with the TBI to do them all."
Finally, for Fox, the issue appears to be less about the city's written policy than the question of whether or not city government should provide a second chance for some people. Young people, Fox noted, are particularly susceptible to making mistakes when it comes to issues like drugs.
"On every survey that I have seen, the large portion of our young people have smoked dope," Fox said. "If they have smoked dope and done those things, they have had it in their possession. I don't condone those things, but it is a part of society. I don't condone it or encourage it. The thing about it is, it's a matter of who is caught."