Excerpted from NJ Advance Media By Karen Yi
The Newark employees charged for their alleged roles in a 12-person drug trafficking ring run out of a recreation center should have undergone a criminal background check as required by city policy but “fell through the cracks,” officials said Friday.
Two of the three city workers accused of being embroiled in the gang-affiliated drug operation were previously convicted on drug charges like the ones they now face.
“We should have had a better screening process, and had we had a better screening process, we probably would not have put them in the rec center,” Kecia Daniels, Newark’s deputy business administrator and previous personnel director told NJ Advance Media.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Wednesday charged Arthur Hardy, 41, Edward Williams, 51, and Rahim Jackson, 43, with distributing heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine to Newark neighborhoods and using the Rotunda Recreation & Wellness Center, where they worked, as a place to allegedly receive and store drugs, according to the criminal complaint.
Hardy previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute heroin in 2009 and served 37 months in federal prison. Jackson was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2009 for conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin. He was hired two months after he was released from prison and remained on probation, court records show.
All three were began working in Newark in June 2017 as assistant rec leaders earning $20,134 annually, payroll records show. They were fired on Wednesday.
Daniels said every employee — full-time or not — must undergo a fingerprint background checks conducted by a third party. City officials initially said incorrectly that part-time and seasonal employees are not subject to these checks.
Since it’s up to each hire to schedule a fingerprinting appointment and pay for them, Daniels said it’s still not clear whether the workers never made an appointment, or the paperwork was lost in the process. The city has no record of their background checks.
“Sometimes with a city this size and an employee population this size, the background checks come back and they are either lost or not reviewed thoroughly,” Daniels said. “I’m going to take responsibility. Leadership is from the top. My name was on the door on that point. I should have done it; I should have looked.”
Newark employs about 3,100 full-time workers with an additional 100-200 seasonal employees over the summer.
It’s not clear who is representing Hardy, Williams or Jackson in court. Jackson’s attorney in his prior case did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hardy’s previous attorney could not be reached.
Having a criminal conviction does not automatically bar you from city employment.
Mayor Ras Baraka, who said he was “perturbed, angry, upset” after hearing of the charges, has been a major proponent of the city’s re-entry program which allows the formerly incarcerated to get job training and employment.
The two city employees with prior convictions did not go through this six-month program that generally places employees in the public works department or water and sewer.
“I do not want what happened today to affect the re-entry process,” Baraka said this week. “There are dozens of folks who are probably worried that it may.”
Over 90% of people arrested in the city return to Newark, Baraka said. Engaging people in meaningful employment helps reintegrate them back into the community and prevent recidivism, he’s said.
“We believe that people are going to be rehabilitated,” he said, emphasizing that the incident would not prompt changes to the re-entry program.
Newark also instituted a ban the box policy, meaning it does not ask job applicants if they have a criminal history until a job offer is made.
A recreation loophole
Newark resident Wilmary Melendez was surprised on Wednesday to learn about the alleged drug ring.
“They should have people that are safe, so parents are not going to be worried at work that something is going to happen to their kids,” she said.
But the incident that outraged parents and city officials is underscoring how little accountability measures there are for recreation centers.
There is no state law requiring part-time or seasonal workers at recreation centers to submit background checks.
“It’s really up to the interest of local government or sponsoring agencies of how they want to handle,” said Bill Foelsch, director of parks and recreation for Morris Township and past president of the New Jersey Recreation and Park Association.
Foelsch said at least 75% of the association’s members have some sort of criminal background requirement for recreation personnel and volunteers.
“I do think that the standard of care around the country is that for employees who work with children or in settings where children are present, that it would be advisable to have criminal history record checks done for that individual,” he said.
Rec centers are not licensed by the state like childcare facilities or monitored by health officials like summer and youth camps are.
The state’s departments of community affairs, children and families and health all said they do not oversee recreation centers.
State officials did say the past convictions of Hardy and Jackson would not necessarily bar them from working at a licensed childcare center. They could be hired after presenting rehabilitation, age of the offense, or other considerations.
Baraka is planning on issuing an apology letter to parents at the city’s recreation centers and all recreation employees, a city spokesman said. The city will continue to investigate and review its hiring processes.
“This actually happened on the city’s watch. We’re investigating all aspects of this,” spokesman Taquan Williams said. “We just want to cast a broad net to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”