Harris claims fire department ‘was aware’ of criminal history
By LPR Staff
Nearly six months ago, Michael Harris was put on “indefinite suspension” from the Lockhart Fire Department after a background check revealed he had a criminal history in New York State. On Friday, after several months of legal wrangling, his fate was left in the hands of a North Texas arbitrator.
In December 2007, ba
ckground checks on several employees within the Lockhart Fire Department revealed that Harris had been convicted of indecent exposure and lewd conduct, both misdemeanor charges, in New York State in the early 1990s. As a condition of his misdemeanor probation on those charges, Harris is required to enroll on the Sex Offender Registry in the State of Texas.
Under the rules of civil service enacted by popular vote in October 2007, Harris was put on administrative leave pending an investigation of the matter. During that investigation, Fire Chief Jerry Doyle maintained he was not aware of Harris’ criminal record or sex offender status. Ultimately, Harris was put on “indefinite suspension,” tantamount to a termination, in February.
Harris claims Doyle was aware, or should have been aware, of his history, and has been campaigning through the rules of civil service to overturn Doyle’s decision.
A hearing on Friday was the final step in the process. Over more than six hours, representatives for Harris and for the City of Lockhart presented testimony and documents in an effort to convince a Weatherford attorney, Phil King, to support their stance on the termination.
“I want the opportunity to come back and prove that I am trustworthy and I can be a good employee,” Harris said. “I want the chance to rise above the mistakes of my past and make something positive out of my life.”
His desire to show he has changed may not be enough.
“Firefighters – all emergency service personnel – are held to a higher standard than other municipal employees,” Doyle said. “I don’t think, with this information out now, that the citizens would welcome him back or trust him in their homes when they are in a vulnerable position.”
Moral issues to one side, a deeper issue in the termination is the question of who knew about Harris’s past, and when they knew.
While Doyle maintains Harris did not fully disclose his criminal past, specifically his status as a registered sex offender, six reports prepared by Doyle state he knew “the circumstances of [Harris’s] probationary certification standing with the Texas Department of Health.” That probation, a 48-month term, was based on Harris’s criminal history and was levied by TDH when Harris originally applied for emergency medical technician (EMT) standing in 2000. That probation was in effect when Harris came to work in Lockhart in 2003, but expired before his termination early this year.
Doyle admits Harris told him he had “gotten in some trouble” in New York and there was a misdemeanor conviction, but said he did not know until December the “trouble” was of “a sexual nature.”
“I couldn’t imagine that TDH would license a registered sex offender, and I was shocked to learn they had,” he said. “It never occurred to me the trouble would be of that nature.”
Ralph Torres, the Service Director for the Texas State Fire Department and Harris’s representative in Friday’s hearing, said although Harris did not disclose his offender status outright, Doyle should have known.
“He signed a waiver authorizing [the City of Lockhart] to run a full background check, and he wouldn’t have done that if he was trying to hide something,” Torres said.
Doyle said he trusted both TDH and the Texas Commission of Fire Protection to check backgrounds on applicants, so the city did not run a background check. They did, however, decide to extend Harris’s probationary period to nine months, instead of the usual six months, based on the presence of a criminal history.
It was not because of his criminal history that Harris was suspended, said the city’s attorney in the proceedings, Julia Ganaway. Instead, she said, he was moved to “indefinite suspension” status because he failed on several occasions in December 2007 and January 2008, to disclose that there were in fact two criminal convictions, and that he was a registered sex offender.
Again, Torres presented witnesses to suggest if Doyle did not know about his status, he should have.
Two former officers of the Lockhart Fire Department, both of whom still work in the industry but are no longer with the Department, testified they knew as early as 2003 that Harris had a criminal record. One said he’d learned of Harris’s criminal record during an officers’ meeting with Doyle. The other suggested he knew not only of the criminal convictions but the nature of the offenses, and about Harris’s sex offender status. Though he admitted he did not discuss the sex offender status with Doyle personally, he thought it was “common knowledge” within the department.
Both appeared under subpoena, and said that, having worked with Harris and knowing the circumstances of his convictions and subsequent sex offender registration status, they would not object to him providing medical assistance to their wives, sisters or children.
Ganaway presented a statement from another former Lockhart firefighter who said he was “disgusted by the way Harris talked about women.” That firefighter was not present for the hearing and offered no direct testimony regarding his statement.
It may take as long as six weeks for King to offer a decision as to whether Harris should be returned to active duty. Doyle, along with City Manager Vance Rodgers and Mayor James “Jimmy” Bertram, testified returning him to duty would be a mistake. They fear he will not have the trust of the citizens and his employment will be to the detriment of the department.
Although statistics show the rate of recidivism for “flashers” is high, Harris insists he has put the mistakes of his past behind him.
The decision, ultimately, lies with King.
When Harris was initially hired, employment applications for the City of Lockhart did not ask whether the applicant had criminal convictions or proceedings against them in Texas or any other state. Since the situation with Harris came to light, those applications have been upgraded, and now ask applicants to disclose criminal convictions up front. Rodgers and Betram said registered sex offenders will not be hired to work with the City of Lockhart, and if any others are found on the payroll, they will be terminated.