Thursday, April 26, 2018

Despite arrest records, landscaping company's workers on the job at Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — For two years Daphne Jones has dispatched landscaping crews to dozens of Hillsborough County schools where they mow grass, trim weeds and make the grounds suitable for children.

Jones, 41, is the owner of On-Point Group, part of a privatization experiment school officials say is saving taxpayers money and helping small businesses.

But the Tampa Bay Times found that most of the workers Jones has sent to campuses have criminal convictions on their records.

One had 23 arrests in Florida. Another had 27, four of them since the company started bidding on school jobs.

And those are the ones who passed muster.

Nearly half of 67 workers she has tried to use failed to meet local requirements of the state's Jessica Lunsford Act, which is intended to keep dangerous criminals off school grounds. One worker told the Times he went on the job while using another worker's identification.

Jones herself has bankruptcies and tax liens in her past. She pleaded guilty in 2003 to Social Security fraud. She pleaded guilty in 2009 to negligence in a widely publicized elderly abuse case.

School officials say Jones' company has done a good job. They say their process of screening workers, under the Lunsford Act, goes far beyond what the state requires, even though the reality is that workers with many kinds of criminal convictions are not covered by the law.

They say privatization is a necessity in school districts in these budget-conscious times.

And even if officials did not want to contract with Jones, or another business owner, they say their hands are tied: State law requires them to select the lowest responsible bidder.

"You have the paperwork and you have the facts," said Jean Bowman, general manager of procurement for the Hillsborough schools. "You never enter into moral issues or trust issues. You can't in this business.''

• • •

Jones declined several requests for an interview. But this much is known from public records and news accounts:

She owned rental housing and ran a West Tampa beauty salon while raising her special-needs son. In 2002, the federal government said Jones failed to disclose those ventures when she applied for her child's Social Security benefits. She pleaded guilty to Social Security fraud and served two years' probation.

After that, she ran a boarding house in the building with the beauty salon and an adult living facility in a 5,000-square-foot waterfront home just outside Temple Terrace.

Those ventures came to a halt in 2007. Acting on a tip from her caretaker, Tampa police found 18 elderly or disabled adults in squalid conditions at the West Tampa building.

Food and medical care were inadequate, residents told police. The heat index was 104 degrees, but there was no air conditioning and residents lacked drinking water in rooms they were afraid to leave, police said.

There were allegations that Jones stole their money and abused them physically.

Jones and her attorneys said the group home residents were in the West Tampa building temporarily while improvements were made to the Temple Terrace home and that the air conditioning was under repair. They said the caretaker called police because he had a grudge against Jones.

Prosecutors ultimately deemed many of the residents unreliable witnesses because of their age or diminished mental capacity.

In January 2009, Jones struck a plea deal. The 18 felony abuse charges were reduced to one count of misdemeanor negligence. She pleaded guilty. She was given six months' probation. Adjudication was withheld.

Jones said she was ready to move on with her life.

• • •

With the abuse case pending, Jones became involved in On-Point Group. At its peak, the company had landscaping and lawn care contracts at 47 Hillsborough school district sites.

She based it in the Temple Terrace home where she previously ran the adult group home. She started bidding on jobs in 2010 under a system that encourages participation from small and minority-owned businesses by dividing the school district into dozens of zones. Contracts also have been bid this way for electrical services, plumbing, painting and other kinds of building maintenance.

The bid documents ask for three references. On-Point did not provide them. There was a form that asked whether Jones could attest to a drug-free work policy. She checked "no." Another company underbid On-Point.

But officials say the first company lost the contract for improperly using badges to get onto school grounds under the Lunsford Act, named for a Homosassa girl who was raped and murdered by a laborer who had worked at her school.

On-Point was given 23 of the jobs the first company lost. On-Point was the low bidder for 24 more jobs in 2011. In recent weeks, however, officials said On-Point lost many of its schools to a business that bid even lower.

Under the Lunsford Act, a vendor must submit the names of any workers they want to go on campus. The workers are questioned and fingerprinted.

The Lunsford Act denies badges to any worker who has been convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude," such as rape or murder. Districts can expand that list, and in Hillsborough it also includes felony drug convictions and any misdemeanor conviction that involves a sex act.

"This district's list is broader than what the state requires, and some would argue that it is broader even than the state allows," said school district attorney Tom Gonzalez, a specialist in labor law.

In some cases, workers who do not have badges can go on campus in the summer or on weekends. For that to happen, the school cannot be open for students, said Cathy Valdes, the district's chief of facilities.

Of 67 workers On-Point has submitted for background checks since 2010, 29 were disqualified. The district does not divulge reasons for their decisions to disqualify. But in reviewing Florida Department of Law Enforcement Files, the Times learned that some had been convicted of robbery, aggravated assault or drug offenses.

Of those workers who did get badges, the Times counted more than 200 arrests. A large number of arrests does not disqualify a worker, district officials said, as an arrest does not necessarily result in a conviction.

Two-thirds of the cleared workers with arrest records also had convictions, though not the kind that would bar them from working on school grounds. Typical examples include driving without a license, passing bad checks and misdemeanor drug possession.

Jorge Ortiz, 23, said he worked at On-Point for a week in August. He has been arrested 23 times. Some of the cases were misdemeanors, such as trespassing, that clearly fell outside the Lunsford Act guidelines. In others, the charges were dropped.

Ortiz told the Times he has an anger problem and has been homeless much of his life. He said Jones, through a recruiter, picked him up on the streets of Orlando and often hires men who are down and out and easy to exploit.

They quarreled, he said, and Jones never paid him.

District officials said Jones offers opportunities to some workers who are struggling to get by.

"She's got this sub-mission from what I understand that she wants to employ people that maybe have a difficult time getting jobs," Valdes said.

From what district officials are hearing, On-Point does a good job. No one, they said, has complained to them about being mistreated or not being paid.

If that were the case, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, workers would likely contact the school district to complain, as they sometimes do. "All of that would be part of this woman's history," she said.

It is not clear whether district officials knew about Jones' adult abuse case, or if that was considered before she landed the contracts. Officials did consider carefully her application for a work badge. Under the Lunsford Act, she qualified.

• • •

Officials said they are satisfied with the system that brought Jones to them, for these reasons:

• Jones was charged with 18 felony abuse counts but never convicted of any. The ultimate guilty plea was to a lone misdemeanor.

• If a large percentage of On-Point's workers are denied badges, it's because the district's clearance process is especially strict. In another district with looser standards, a greater percentage of workers might get badges.

• On-Point is doing what is specified in its contract and without complaint. "We've had comment after comment about how much better our yards look," Valdes said. And the workers are not supposed to interact with children.

• State law requires districts to use the "lowest responsive, responsible bidder" under the system Hillsborough uses for landscaping. District officials contend that under those rules, they could lose a lawsuit if they discriminated against a bidder on moral or subjective grounds.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Timothy Elliott, a Tallahassee lawyer who specializes in bid challenges, said the word "responsible" gives the district some latitude. "I could probably argue both sides of the equation, depending on the facts that actually panned out," he said.

But Gonzalez said, "It's the lowest responsible bidder in the context of the job that they're doing."

Elia and Valdes did become concerned when the Times told them about an On-Point applicant who said he worked for the company about six months even though he was turned down for a badge.

Curtis Robinson's criminal history includes a prison sentence in 1991 for aggravated assault with a weapon. He said he went to jobs using someone else's badge, then returned it at the end of the day. Officials are investigating whether On-Point sent him to schools. "If that's the case," Elia said, "[Jones] will not work for us."

Elia said there are no logical alternatives to bidding and contracting. "What is it that you would have a district do?" she asked.

"The very fact that budgets are very tight and we have a huge district and we're trying to do all that we do as efficiently and cost effectively as we can puts us in a position where we don't have, in some cases, our own staff because the costs are just prohibitive."

The Lunsford Act system works, she said. The proof is in the fact that Jones' predecessor lost its contract for misusing badges.

• • •

One issue raised by officials was that workers for low-tech, low-wage jobs such as lawn care are hard to find. The district's standards are high. Workers exist, but with an arrest record, it's not always easy to get hired.

Case in point: Benjamin Boderick. At 45, his record shows 27 arrests. As a young man he was convicted of writing bad checks, battery and a hit-and-run.

Since 1999, nearly all his arrests and convictions have been for driving without a license. He has worked at On-Point for three years, he said. Among other things, he drives the tractor.

Asked whether he would ever harm a child, he said, "No, because I've got 12 and seven grandchildren. Everybody who knows me knows that kids are my world. I would never hurt a child, and I can't stand nobody who would."

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was one of Jones' attorneys in the adult abuse case. He took the case, in part, because he saw her as a true underdog. Later they disagreed on her defense, and he had himself removed from the case.

A former drug addict, he is a believer in redemption. But he also said school districts should vet their employees and contractors, and discuss with them controversial events in their past.

"We ought to be a forgiving society," he said. At the same time, "We ought to have safe and prudent policies for the protection of our children and the taxpayers' money. And sometimes we should err on the side of saying no."

Times staff writer Phillip Morgan contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.

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