Two on sex-offender list work for state
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010
10/13/10 at 12:59 PM
This story originally contained an incorrect amount for the Department of Rehabilitation Services budget and payroll. The story has been corrected.
OKLAHOMA CITY - Two employees of the state's Office of Rehabilitation Services are on the Oklahoma Sex Offender Registry, and the agency defends its hiring decisions as lawful.
The employees are Caryn J. Mitchell, an Oklahoma City woman who pleaded guilty in 2009 to two counts of procuring a minor for prostitution, and Andrew Rick Wilson Jr., a former Tulsa high school dean who pleaded no contest in 1999 to sexual battery.
The agency knew about Mitchell's criminal conviction at the time of her hiring in August, but officials cannot determine if the agency knew of Wilson's status when he was hired nine years ago.
The employees did not respond to written letters for comment.
The Office of Rehabilitation Services has 1,009 employees, a payroll of about $63.1 million and an annual budget of about $110 million. Director Michael O'Brien referred comments to agency spokeswoman Jody Harlan.
Harlan confirmed Mitchell and Wilson are employees and registered sex offenders. She said they have met their legal registration requirements and have good employment records.
"It is an emotionally charged issue," Harlan said. "We are walking a line. There is the public's right to know and our job protecting the safety of our clients and an individual's right to be employed. As long as our agency and the employees are following the law, they have a right to be employed.
"We cannot just fire people because of a debt they have already paid. If we were to prohibit everyone on the sex-offender list from working, we might as well keep them in prison because they are going to starve. We have to do something with people who have paid their debt and are attempting to start over."
The agency helps Oklahomans with disabilities attain self-sufficiency by bridging barriers to finding jobs, finishing school or establishing a home. The agency is made up of five divisions: visual services, vocational rehabilitation, disability determination, school for the deaf and school for the blind.
Mitchell, 32, was an employee with the disability determination division in 2008 when she was arrested twice for prostitution-related crimes within one month. She pleaded guilty in July 2009, the same month she resigned from the agency, according to court and state records.
One arrest was after transporting a female escort to a hotel in Oklahoma City and the escort offered an undercover police officer sex in exchange for $300. The other arrest was for transporting a minor to engage in prostitution.
Mitchell served time in prison from September 2009 to July 2010 and is registered as a sex offender.
She was hired back at the agency in August and receives a monthly paycheck of about $2,600, according to state records.
Harlan said Mitchell works in the same division and has no contact with the public. Her job duties involve reviewing records for Social Security benefits, and the office location is held in secret, Harlan said.
"Caryn J. Mitchell was charged with a crime that was not related to her job as an administrative technician in DRS' Disability Determination Division," Harlan stated in an e-mail. "Mitchell re-applied and was rehired as an administration technician on Aug. 2. She was judged on her qualifications and past performance."
Wilson, 54, pleaded no contest in 1999 to sexual battery after a 16-year-old student accused him of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching her while he was a guidance dean at Rogers High School. The judge made a finding of guilt and ordered 100 hours of community service, sex-offender counseling and two years of probation.
Wilson was hired by the agency nine years ago and works with employers to create jobs for disabled clients. He has no contact with people younger than 18, Harlan said.
He works in Muskogee with a monthly salary of about $3,100, according to state records.
Wilson interacts with clients and their counselors to determine what employers can do to provide an environment for a disabled employee, Harlan said.
Harlan said she is not sure if the agency knew of his sex-offender status at the time of his hiring, although a background check was supposed to be completed.
"I cannot determine when we found that out," Harlan said. "We have no record of it. But even if we had known it, there is no law that says he cannot go on and work. He's here now, and we can't find any evidence he hasn't been anything but a good employee and has found jobs for people who need it. You look at the current situation."
Harlan said the agency "carefully reviewed the employment history and job duties of two employees listed on the Oklahoma sex and violent crime offender registry to ensure that they are working within the legal limits established by state law.''
The agency's employment application does not ask if the person has been arrested or convicted on any criminal or civil matters, she said.
Harlan said the agency does state background checks with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation on all applicants and is working to strengthen the process. During the last legislative session, authority was granted to allow for national background checks, she said.
"We developed an internal policy, which is in the process of being approved, on how to conduct criminal background checks and what to do with the information under the provisions of the new statutory authority," Harlan stated in an e-mail.
Harlan said hiring decisions may include information outside public records.
"It's not something we take lightly," Harlan said. "The agency does not support or defend wrongdoing. But sometimes there is a backstory that could be a factor. Sometimes there is information an employer might know but it might not be known by the record."
World Staff Writers Gavin Off and Curtis Killman contributed to this report.
How many offenders are on the payroll?
Because of a lack of a key piece of data, it's impossible for the public to know how many felons are on the payroll of various state agencies.
In reporting this story, the Tulsa World matched two sets of data: a list of employees of the state's Office of Rehabilitation Services to the list of convicted people in the state Department of Corrections database.
There were 119 felons whose first and last names matched those of Rehabilitation Services employees. The list narrows to 80 when a middle initial is included. Crimes on that smaller list include caretaker sexual abuse, drugs, burglary, arson, embezzlement and driving under the influence.
The state does not provide dates of birth for employees, meaning identity confirmations are difficult or impossible.
In September, an Oklahoma County district judge ruled that state agencies must determine whether releasing the birth dates of their employees is an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association sued the state to prevent the release of birth dates, which were requested by the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman. The birth dates had been considered an open record and used often in reporting.
The Tulsa World and The Oklahoman are appealing the decision.
Jody Harlan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation Services, said: "Although DRS' hiring practices are consistent with other state agencies and in compliance with state and federal laws, the Tulsa World singled DRS out for comparisons of employee payroll lists against an Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) database of felony convictions.''
"The comparisons showed some DRS employees may have the same names as those on the DOC list, but the Tulsa World cannot confirm that the DRS employees are, in fact, the same individuals.''
Harlan said the agency did not have an opportunity to review the source data analyzed by the World. Both sets of data are public records.
Ginnie Graham 581-8376