|Coco Wallace as he is led away from arraignment|
Friday, July 24, 2015
Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2015
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia
In October, 27-month-old Sebastian Wallace died of an overdose after ingesting enough of his father’s alleged illegally obtained Oxycodone to kill an adult three times over. His 39-year-old father, Coco Kollie Wallace, is awaiting trial in Bucks County on charges of homicide and child endangerment related to his son’s death.
Nine months later, though, details of the child welfare investigation into Sebastian’s death remain largely unknown to the public even though a 7-year-old state law requires a report be released to the public within six months of a child’s death.
Even a state-mandated summary without specific details of Sebastian’s death — and the deaths of other children during the fourth quarter of 2014 — won’t be available until the state releases its annual child abuse report in the next few weeks.
Such delays are not unusual either, according to a Berks County child advocacy group, which noted that the annual child abuse report is supposed to be released by May 1.
When the Center for Children’s Justice on Friday released its latest report on child deaths and near deaths in the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services had released only two finalized reports online — one death and one near death, both in York County. Information from the investigations into another 66 confirmed child abuse deaths or near deaths during the first nine months of last year remained unknown to the public, according to the center.
But on Wednesday, after calls from the newspaper, DHS posted another 11 finalized reports, including six newly added deaths in the central and northeastern parts of the state.
Another 53 reports for last year are being finalized and could be posted within the next couple of weeks, according to an agency spokeswoman.
DHS spokeswoman Kait Gillis would not comment on the delay.
The Center for Children’s Justice’s latest report outlining data involving death and near deaths among Pennsylvania children shows that 163 children died and another 245 nearly died as a result of abuse or neglect over almost five years, between January 2010 and September.
More than 80 percent of the deaths, or near deaths, involved children under age 3, and many, like Sebastian Wallace’s, had a common thread of drug use, the center found.
Montgomery and Bucks counties ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, of counties in the state with the number of reported deaths or near deaths involving confirmed child abuse or neglect during the four-year span, according to the center’s report. Bucks County reported 10 incidents, and Montgomery County 14. Philadelphia led the state with 96 reported incidents.
The center’s report was based on information culled from summaries in quarterly reports filed with Human Services, as required under the 2006 state law, according to Executive Director Cathleen Palm. Those mandated summaries include basic, non-identifying information about child-abuse related deaths and near deaths.
What those summaries also show is a lag in the release of the finalized reports with details of the deaths that are required under Act 33, a 2008 law designed to provide child advocates and others with detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding child deaths and near deaths in the state. Act 33 reports address details such as if the county child welfare organization was involved with the family, if the agency met compliance with any laws or regulations and makes recommendations to prevent future incidents.
The law also sets standards and timelines for local and state authorities for reviewing and reporting incidents, including the six-month release deadline. The only exception to the six-month rule is when a district attorney certifies that a report release might compromise a pending criminal investigation or proceeding, according to the state agency.
DHS’ Gillis did not say how many of the remaining unreleased 2014 reports fall under the certification exception.
Of the six newly added deaths to the 2014 Act 33 report, none were found to involve child abuse or neglect, though one case did involve criminal charges. All the reports indicate that they were finalized within the six-month deadline but not made public as required by the law. Of the newly added near death reports, none involved substantiated child abuse or neglect, half were finalized after the six-month deadline, but they weren’t released to the public either, according to online documents.
The time lag with Act 33 reports is an ongoing problem, Palm said.
The state has not released any new summaries on deaths or near deaths involving child abuse or neglect since Sept. 30. Those summaries will be included in the annual state reports, Gillis said. The 2014 summaries include 14 deaths or near deaths that occurred in 2013 and 2011 but were not substantiated as child abuse or neglect until last year, Palm said.
A similar discrepancy is seen in 2013. For that year, the center found summaries for 38 child deaths and 52 near fatalities related to abuse or neglect, but the Act 33 report lists only 26 fatalities and 38 near fatalities, Palm said. The number of Act 33 reports should outnumber summaries since they reflect both confirmed, and unsubstantiated, child abuse and neglect cases, she added.
The apparent disconnect goes beyond the discrepancies between quarterly summaries versus Act 33 reports, Palm noted.
The center’s report found at least four child fatalities in 2011 and 2012 that were substantiated as abuse or neglect in Allegheny County but not included in any state reported data, not even quarterly reports.
Other child deaths reported in the media also appear to be the result of child abuse or neglect, but those children are not found within state data either, Palm said. The incidents include an 8-month-old infant who died in a Bensalem hotel in July 2012. An autopsy of the infant found he had heroin in his system at the time of the death. Both parents were arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including endangering the welfare of children in February 2013, the center’s report shows.
The quarterly summaries and final Act 33 reports are critical for tracking trends with child abuse and prevention efforts, Palm said. Since no standard exists for summaries, the amount of detail varies widely, unlike what is found in the Act 33 reports.
“We know too little. Imagine trying to cure cancer with the same little bit of knowledge we have,” Palm said. “Why is it so hard to really know how many kids died and nearly died in Pennsylvania?”
Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2015
A suspended Bucks County doctor, already facing federal charges for an alleged cash-only pill mill that netted nearly $2 million in fewer than three years, is now accused in the death of one of his former patients.
Dr. William J. O’Brien III, 49, is responsible for the death of an unidentified patient to whom he prescribed a muscle relaxant known as Flexeril, as well as oxycodone and methadone at his Bristol Township practice in December 2013, according to a superseding federal indictment released Thursday. The patient died of an overdose related to the drug combination, authorities allege. The indictment alleges that O’Brien prescribed the patient 120 pills of 30 mg oxycodone, 60 pills of 10 mg methadone and 540 pills of Flexeril.
O’Brien, whose license to practice medicine in Pennsylvania has been suspended, also faces 95 additional counts of distribution of controlled substances, specifically oxycodone, methadone and amphetamines, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.
O’Brien’s ex-wife Elizabeth Hibbs, 54, and eight others are also charged in the indictment in connection with the alleged illegal drug sales and fraud.
Authorities allege that the couple diverted assets from O’Brien’s company, WJO Inc., to their personal accounts and accounts they controlled. They also allegedly concealed other assets and knowingly made a false statement under oath during bankruptcy proceedings.
The others named in the indictment are charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
They are Philadelphia residents Michael Thompson, 49, Peter Marrandino, 48, Joseph Mehl, 48, Patrick Treacy, 47, Charles Johnson, 46, Frank Corazo Jr., 52, and Jennifer Lynn Chambers, 21. Joseph Mitchell Sr., 39, of West Deptford, New Jersey, was also charged.
Federal agents said six of the defendants were arrested Thursday, but they did not say which ones.
O’Brien and the defendants allegedly developed a scheme whereby they recruited so-called “patients” who would typically pay O’Brien $200 cash in exchange for prescriptions for controlled substances. Once the prescriptions were filled, the “patients” handed over the drugs to the defendants who would sell them to drug dealers, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
With cash-paying “patients,” O’Brien could conceal money from creditors and the United States Bankruptcy Court, where he had filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2010 for WJO, a group of medical practices including a pain management and hyperbaric oxygen practice.
The feds allege that between March 2012 and January, O’Brien, a doctor of osteopathy with a string of family practices in Bucks, Lehigh and Philadelphia counties, dispensed about 378,914 oxycodone pills and approximately 160,492 methadone pills. The estimated street value of the controlled substances was approximately $5 million.
Thompson, Marrandino, Mehl, Mitchell and Treacy — all described in court papers as members or associates of the Pagans outlaw motorcycle group — along with Chambers and Corazo allegedly conspired with O’Brien to distribute the drugs for profit.
Thompson and Corazo are also charged with health care fraud for allegedly using Medicaid health insurance to pay for the medically unnecessary controlled substances prescribed by O’Brien.
Hibbs, who at times was the chief operating officer and chief executive officer for WJO, and O’Brien were married when the bankruptcy petition was filed. They later divorced, though continued to live and work together, the indictment shows.
If convicted of all charges, O’Brien faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life behind bars. The remaining defendants face substantial prison terms and fines, and are subject to criminal forfeiture proceedings.
O’Brien was initially charged Jan. 29 with one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and 26 counts of illegally distributing oxycodone and Xanax at his practices in Bristol Township and Philadelphia. He allegedly sold prescriptions for narcotics to an undercover federal agent and a confidential informant.
Prosecutors initially alleged that O’Brien collected $1.8 million in fees between January and December 2014 for writing 4,663 prescriptions for addictive narcotics without performing a physical exam or other medical care or treatment. O’Brien also allegedly falsified medical records to make it look as though the patients were examined.
O’Brien remains in federal custody without bail.
His receptionist, Angela Rongione 29, of Philadelphia, was charged in January with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. She is free on her own recognizance until trial.
In 2009, O’Brien headed Doctors’ Hospital of Bucks County LLC, a group of about 80 local doctors who attempted to buy the then-financially troubled Lower Bucks Hospital before it declared bankruptcy. O’Brien’s hyperbaric oxygen business — Hyper-Ox Inc. — had operated out of the Bristol Township hospital between 2007 and 2010.
In 2011, the FBI seized records and materials related to Hyper-Ox during raids at four of his then-seven medical offices in Bucks and Philadelphia. Also seized was O’Brien’s self-invented and patented multiperson hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Federal officials have not publicly commented on the Hyper-Ox investigation.
Posted: Saturday, July 18, 2015
A Chester County judge overseeing the trial of a prominent Bucks County family and an associate charged in a $20 million insurance fraud indicated on Friday that he didn't believe the state's case against three of the six defendants was solid.
In addition, Judge Thomas Gavin said that he had "serious problems" with the Pennsylvania Attorney General Office's argument for charging four members of the politically connected Risoldi family with corrupt organizations and conspiracy.
"I have a big problem there," with the corruption charges, Gavin said Friday at a hearing on defense motions to dismiss criminal charges in the fraud case against the Risoldi defendants and the family's private investigator. The charges stem from three fires at the Risoldi family's Buckingham mansion, Clairemont, in 2009, 2010 and 2013.
Following four hours of testimony Friday, Gavin said he would release his written opinion on the defense motions sometime in September.
Claire Risoldi, 68, of Buckingham, faces 21 criminal counts related to her alleged participation in a scheme to defraud insurance company AIG, and her attorney, John McMahon, is seeking to have 17 of those charges dismissed, including theft by deception, corrupt organizations, false insurance claims and forgery on the grounds the state has failed show enough evidence to prove its case.
Attorneys for the four other defendants filed similar pretrial motions. Claire Risoldi's son and daughter, Carl Risoldi, 44, of Buckingham, and Carla Risoldi, 48, of Solebury, are each charged with knowledge that property is proceeds of an illegal act, and filing a false/fraudulent insurance claim. Carl Risoldi is also charged with theft by deception, criminal attempt at theft by deception, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy, obstructing administration of law, forgery, tampering with records, and filing false reports.
On Friday the attorney general's office withdrew a forgery charge against Carla Risoldi.
Carl's wife, Sheila Risoldi, 44, and private investigator Mark Goldman, 54, of Wayne, are each charged with knowledge that property is proceeds of an illegal act, filing a false/fraudulent insurance claim, theft by deception and forgery.
A preliminary hearing against a sixth co-defendant, fabric vendor Richard Holston, 51, of Medford Lakes, New Jersey, is tentatively scheduled for August before District Judge Robert Roth. The trial for the Risoldis and Goldman, the family's longtime private investigator, is scheduled for Nov. 9 in Bucks County Court.
But the judge, who is hearing the fraud case because all of Bucks County's judges were recused, indicated that he felt the state's case against Sheila Risoldi, Carla Risoldi and Goldman was not strong. Prosecutor Matt Connolly acknowledged in court that the state built its case against the three on alleged lies they told during insurance company examinations under oath about the October 2013 fire at Clairemont. That fire, coupled with the Risoldi family's alleged false allegations that firefighters had stolen $10 million in jewelry, launched the investigation that led to a state grand jury in January recommending criminal charges.
Gavin also said he was having trouble with the prosecution's argument that Carl Risoldi allegedly misappropriated insurance proceeds designated for alternative living expenses when he bought a home and luxury cars with the money that was supposed to pay for rent while Clairemont was under reconstruction.
While noting Carl Risoldi may have had a civil obligation under his homeowner's policy to tell the insurer what he was using the money for, the judge said he could not see where he committed a crime unless the policy specified the money can only be used to rent a home. Gavin added that Carl Risoldi may have exploited a loophole in the insurance policy to his benefit, which would not be a crime.
While the judge raised concerns about some of the charges, he suggested the prosecution did have enough evidence to proceed to trial in its case involving witness intimidation charges against Claire Risoldi as they relate to her interaction with Tina Mazaheri, a Doylestown attorney. Mazaheri rented her home on Danielle Drive in Buckingham to the Risoldi family after hearing about the fire at Clairemont. Claire Risoldi later bought the home, allegedly with insurance proceeds, according to the grand jury. Prosecutors allege Claire Risoldi tried to intimidate Mazaheri to change her testimony before the grand jury about the amount she charged Risoldi for rent. Mazaheri said she charged Risoldi $4,000 a month, but Risoldi told AIG it was $12,000.
Gavin said he did not think witness intimidation charges involving AIG insurance adjuster James O'Keefe arose to the criminal level, noting that insurance adjusters were accustomed to "angry customers." The witness intimidation charge against Claire Risoldi stems from a heated confrontation she had with O'Keefe during the investigation, according to the grand jury.
The alleged confrontation also involved McMahon and led to the AG's office filing a motion to have McMahon disqualified as Claire Risoldi's attorney on the grounds it is conducting an investigation into possible criminal charges against McMahon as a "potential accomplice" to the alleged fraud and that he may be called as a witness for the prosecution raising conflict of interest concerns.
The issue arose again Friday when lead prosecutor David Augenbraun told Gavin that criminal charges were "not off the table" for McMahon. Augenbraun said he planned to convene an investigative grand jury the first week of August. But following an hourlong closed door discussion, though, Gavin declined to remove McMahon from the case.
The four Risoldis are also charged with corrupt organizations, another charge built largely on alleged lies the family told during insurance investigations into the fires at Clairemont, which resulted in AIG paying out roughly $20 million for damages and alternative living expenses.
Prosecutor Connolly argued the corrupt organizations charge against Claire Risoldi stemmed from "material" lies she told under oath during insurance investigations regarding claims in 2009 and 2010. The alleged lies, Connolly argued, show a pattern of racketeering necessary for a corrupt organization charge.
Attorneys for the Risoldis claimed that prosecutors failed to show any evidence that insurance payouts for the first two fires were improper. McMahon pointed out that AIG investigated the 2009 and 2010 fires and paid the claims despite missing receipts for items.
"Not one dollar of that 2009 fire was obtained by fraud," McMahon said.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Traveling carnival operators should be fined if any of their employees are arrested or cited while they are in town, according to a Bensalem councilman.
At a minimum, Bryan Allen believes that amusement and concession owners should be required to show proof that their employees have current criminal background checks before events are opened to the public.
“They bring people into town and they’re in our stores,” Allen said. “I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter and I live near where that carnival sets up. It’s concerning.”
Back in May, Allen asked the township solicitor to research the possibility of imposing such fines, following the second arrest in two years of a carnival worker at the annual Neshaminy Mall Spring Carnival. He is awaiting an answer.
His latest suggestion — possibly requiring proof of the background checks — was motivated by an article published in this newspaper Monday about how transient workers, such as carnival operators and workers, are not among employees covered under a new state law on background checks, which is designed to protect children from individuals convicted of certain sex, violent and drug crimes.
“If we can’t do it, I want to know why,” Allen added.
Officials with the amusement industry on a state and national level say the background checks of their employees are already a part of operators’ routine employment screenings, as is drug testing.
Charity Johnson and Richard Alan Griffin still got jobs with the carnival at the Neshaminy Mall.
When she was hired, Johnson’s criminal history included multiple forgery convictions, theft and felony drug charges. Under the state’s new law, which goes into effect next month, the drug charges could bar Johnson, of Mountain City, Tennessee, from having direct contact with Pennsylvania children.
During the carnival’s run in 2013, Johnson, then 32, was accused of stealing $155 from the owner of the carnival at the mall and double-charging credit cards of customers buying ride tickets there. She was charged in Bucks County with theft by deception and receiving stolen property but skipped town before her case was heard, police said.
Griffin, 34, of Bryceville, Florida, has a criminal record that dates back 15 years and includes a 2006 conviction for misdemeanor voyeurism in Hillsborough County, Florida, according to a criminal background check. As part of his one-year probation in the case, he was ordered to stay out of Busch Gardens Amusement parks.
Just before the May 7 kickoff of the annual 10-day carnival, he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of invasion of privacy for allegedly using his cellphone to film up the skirt of a shopper at the mall. He’s awaiting a preliminary hearing in the case.
Bensalem Councilman Edward Kisselback Jr. said he would support an ordinance requiring criminal background checks of carnival workers.
“We don’t know who these people are. They come in and loom over our children and deal with our children,” he said. “With that hectic environment, you can turn around, and a child can be gone in a minute.”
Right now, Bensalem requires only that carnival, ride and concession operators obtain a temporary special events permit, according to Matt Takita, director of building and planning and the township’s zoning officer.
The permit application requires proof of a minimum of a $2 million insurance policy and a $10,000 performance bond. Operators also enter into special service agreements with local first responders and must post deposits to have those services available so taxpayers aren’t burdened, Takita said. The township and the Bucks County Board of Health also check plumbing for concession stands, and the fire marshal makes sure electric service and wiring meets code, he added.
Nationwide, only Illinois and Massachusetts mandate background checks for transient workers, such as carnival owners and workers, and bar individuals with certain convictions from working with children. A growing number of state and county fairs, though, are asking carnival owners to provide background checks or make employee names available so local law enforcement can check them.
Under Pennsylvania’s new law, potential employees and some volunteers who have not lived in Pennsylvania for at least 10 years will be subject to more stringent FBI fingerprint criminal background checks, which are nationwide. Other employees and volunteers must undergo state police criminal checks and child abuse clearances if they have direct and routine contact with children.
Posted: Monday, July 6, 2015
Summertime and carnivals go together like cotton candy and kids. Almost every week, a church, community organization or fire department is sponsoring a festival promoted as old-fashioned family fun.
Did You Know?
Summertime and carnivals go together like cotton candy and kids. Almost every week, a church, community organization or fire department is sponsoring a festival promoted as old-fashioned family fun.
Parents pull out their credit cards and watch as their teens gather and their younger kids run from rides to game booths to food concession stands — many of which are manned by workers hired by the carnival operator.
Yet, Pennsylvania's tougher state law mandating criminal background checks for employees and many volunteers working with children doesn't include traveling carnival and concession operators and their employees.
While a growing number of carnival operators and sponsors of local events across the nation are requiring employee background checks on their own due to public safety concerns, some criminals still get jobs.
Take Richard Alan Griffin, 34, of Bryceville, Florida, a ride operator at the Neshaminy Mall Spring Carnival.
Just hours before the kickoff of the carnival's 10-day run in May, he was arrested for allegedly using his cellphone to film up the skirt of a shopper in the adjacent Bensalem shopping mall.
It wasn’t the first time Griffin, 34, was accused of voyeuristic behavior. The arrest wasn’t his first, either.
His criminal record dates back 15 years and includes a 2006 conviction for misdemeanor voyeurism in Hillsborough County, Florida. As part of his one-year probation in that case, he was ordered to stay out of Busch Gardens Amusement Parks.
In Bucks County, he's incarcerated and awaiting a preliminary hearing on a misdemeanor charge of invasion of privacy.
Griffin is one of at least three traveling carnival workers who have been arrested in Bucks County since 2013 with criminal records — one of them for crimes listed under the new law, which is aimed at preventing individuals convicted of certain sex, violent and drug crimes from gaining unsupervised access to children.
The other two arrested in Bucks County in recent years were a ticket booth operator accused of helping herself to customer credit card numbers, and a ride operator who seriously injured a woman in a drunken-driving accident with a golf cart. Like Griffin, they had multiple prior arrests and convictions.
Their criminal pasts were revealed, at the newspaper's request, through professional criminal background checks performed by Know-it-All-Intelligence Group, a licensed private investigation firm in Bensalem. The checks were similar to the state police checks that will be mandated by Pennsylvania's new law.
The fact that the carnival workers aren't covered under the law isn't unusual, according to trade groups. Only Illinois and Massachusetts have laws that include those types of workers in mandated employee background checks.
The rest of the states leave background checks up to carnival operators and local event sponsors.
In Pennsylvania, individual companies decide the type and scope of employee background checks, said Andy Goodman, legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs and the Pennsylvania State Showmen’s Association, state trade groups representing the amusement industry.
“Some do and some don’t; my guess is it would depend on how local the employees are,” added Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Showmen’s Association and president of the annual Great Allentown Fair. As for why a company wouldn’t do the checks, Gruber said: “Probably money.”
The president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, a national trade group representing 250 carnivals, 15 circuses and several hundred food and game concessionaires, agrees that the cost of the checks is a big concern with state mandates.
“We realize the cost of doing these checks can be really, really high in some cases, depending on what number they do,” Johnson said adding that criminal background checks can cost at least $50 per employee.
Still, officials with the amusement industry contend that background checks are part of routine employment screenings like drug testing, though Johnson acknowledged his organization has not surveyed members on whether the checks are being conducted.
“Many (carnival operators) want to do the right thing and protect their families, guests and employees from any predators or unsavory characters and would not in their right mind hire someone without doing some type of background check,” said Johnson.
He believes most of his organization’s members have some type of background check policy, and some have used them for many years. Some county and state fairs hire only operators that provide employee criminal background checks, which are typically done by third-party certified background check companies or local law enforcement, he said.
Also, Johnson added, a growing segment of carnival workers are foreigners who travel to the U.S. under the federal H-2B guest worker visa program for six to eight months a year. Those foreign workers are subjected to “extreme scrutiny” under the federal Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, he said.
But the quality and scope of some background checks are questionable, especially given the transient nature of the carnival business and the frequent time lags with reporting arrests, said Marc Bourne, a licensed private investigator and co-founder and vice president of the Know-it-All-Intelligence Group.
“Anybody can say they did a background check,” Bourne said. “It’s the kind of background checks they’re doing.”
HOW IT'S DONE
Typical background checks involving state and local record checks have limitations, Johnson, of the amusement business association and others pointed out.
In 2008, a New Hampshire-based carnival company unknowingly hired a Florida fugitive — wanted for kidnapping and armed robbery — to work at a Massachusetts fair, according to news accounts. But the carnival operator didn’t know about the man's alleged crimes because the criminal background check Massachusetts only covers crimes committed in that state. As a result, the suspect’s out-of-state warrants didn’t show up.
He was apprehended after authorities in Florida and Maine, where the man was living, contacted local police when they learned he was working for the carnival company.
In a 2013 incident in Massachusetts, an amusement owner hired a ride operator after he passed a criminal background check in April. But the next month, a grand jury in Maine indicted him for hindering apprehension and prosecution in connection with a murder, according to a news report. The arrest warrant wasn't discovered until July, when local police in Massachusetts conducted a pre-carnival employee background check, according to a news story.
Time lags are also common not only among states, but counties within a state when it comes to reporting arrests to state and national databases that are used for screenings, said Melissa Sorenson, of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners.
While FBI fingerprint checks are considered the gold standard by many because they are nationwide, the results are also not automatically available to employers outside of regulated industries where the checks are mandated.
The shelf-life of background checks is also short, since the information is accurate only as of the day the report is run meaning it won't reflect later arrests.
Still, as a matter of good business, the checks are important, Sorenson added.
“It’s a fairly simple and necessary risk mitigation,” she said. “Ultimately it becomes a branding issue. It becomes paramount that you put forth the screening input to vet through potential staff members who are visible to the public and have direct access to vulnerable populations.”
The key to an effective background check is how it’s done, Bourne said.
The cheapest criminal checks use publicly available data or data from state repositories and government entities, Bourne said. The problem is that the data brokers that buy that information may not know how often it’s updated. The only entity with access to national criminal databases is law enforcement, he added.
“Depending on the type of data broker you are dealing with, they may be buying the data from a jurisdiction only once per year,” he said. ”You have two companies running background checks and they get two different kinds of background checks.”
Bourne is disturbed that seasonal workers like traveling amusement businesses aren't included in Pennsylvania's new background check laws.
“I feel that the people who needed to be screened the most are left out,” Bourne said. “Whenever you have transient workers, you are going to find a lot more criminal records.”
Two years ago, Bensalem police arrested Charity Johnson, then 32, of Mountain City, Tennessee, during the Neshaminy Mall Spring Fair after the carnival owner discovered that $155 was missing. A police investigation alleged that Johnson not only stole the money, but was also double-charging credit cards of customers buying ride tickets.
As it turns out, Johnson has a criminal record that spans from 1999 to last year. It includes multiple forgery convictions, theft, aggravated burglary, heroin possession, obtaining drugs by fraud and simple assault, according to a background check performed by Bourne.
Johnson was charged in Bucks County with theft by deception and receiving stolen property, but skipped town after she was released on her own recognizance. Her whereabouts are unknown. The county has an active bench warrant out on her.
Besides being wanted in Bucks County, Johnson has arrest warrants in Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, for charges ranging from forgery, receiving stolen property, larceny and possession of stolen goods, the background check found.
Then there's Bruce Coppage. When he was arrested in June 2013 in Bucks County, the Florida man had been convicted of public intoxication 10 times between 2005 and 2010, as well as unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and petty larceny, according to a criminal background check.
He was in charge of the Tilt-a-Whirl ride for Reithoffer Shows at St. Michael the Archangel parish's annual fair in Tullytown, when he struck and seriously injured a concession stand worker while driving a golf cart drunk on the fairgrounds. Shortly after Coppage was released on $5,000 unsecured bail, he disappeared and a bench warrant was issued.
Eight months later, Coppage was arrested on the Bucks warrant while working as a ride operator at a county fair in Florida. He was sent back to Bucks County, pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and driving under the influence and was sentenced to time served, 18 months of probation and ordered to pay $119,521 restitution and refrain from consuming alcohol.
Less than six months later, in May 2014, Coppage was killed after he walked into the path of a car in Prince George County, Maryland.
The newspaper was unsuccessful after multiple phone calls and emails to reach a Reithoffer Shows representative for comment. The Florida-based company is the largest traveling carnival operator on the East Coast.
On its website, Reithoffer Shows doesn't mention criminal background checks, but does state that drug testing is a pre-employment requirement for all midway employees, who are subject to random drug tests through the fair season.
After repeated calls and emails, the newspaper was also unsuccessful in its efforts to reach Dreamland Amusements of Delco, North Carolina, — which employed Griffin — as well as Pennsylvania-based carnival operators Jim Houghton Enterprises of Cochranville, and Bartlebaugh Amusements in Madisonburg, which run carnivals in Bucks and eastern Montgomery counties.
Tullytown police Chief Daniel Doyle said his department has “very, very few” problems with carnival workers at the annual St. Michael’s fair. Each year, Reithoffer Shows management offers him access to employee background checks, but Doyle said he hasn’t reviewed them. No one has ever asked his department to do background checks on fair workers, he added.
St. Michael's pastor, the Rev. Michael Dilorio, said he didn’t know if Coppage had previous alcohol-related convictions, but he has full confidence in Reithoffer, the longtime operator of the church’s annual fundraising carnival, which began June 23 and ended Sunday.
In annual planning meetings, Reithoffer officials have assured him any of their employees who set foot on the fairground have up-to-date clearances, Dilorio said. But like Doyle, Dilorio said he has never asked to see the company’s employee background checks.
Neither has Patrick Miller, the chairman of the annual Southampton Days community fair, which ended Saturday. Or Ralph DiGuiseppe, an organizer of the St. Ann Carnival in Bristol.
The weeklong fair in Upper Southampton has used Skelly’s Amusements, a family owned New Jersey company, as its rides and game operator for at least 15 years, said Miller.
“They’ve never had any issues that I’m aware of (with employees)," Miller said. He added that the company assured the fair committee that employees undergo background checks, but Miller said he has never asked to see the information. The newspaper was unsuccessful in reaching a Skelly’s representative for comment Wednesday and Friday.
Organizers of the St. Ann Carnival in Bristol, which is returning this summer after a one-year hiatus, also have used the same Pennsylvania-based carnival operator for decades, said DiGuiseppe, a parish member and president of Bristol Borough Council.
He said the borough has never had problems with fair workers, who leave the fairgrounds every night after closing — and the church provides 24/7 security during the carnival.
DiGuiseppe said he's been told that the ride operator, Jim Houghton Enterprises, does employee background checks.
“I’m sure if I asked for it, they’d give it to us,” he added.
EFFECTIVE OR OVERKILL
State Department of Human Services spokeswoman Diana Fishlock said background checks and child abuse clearances aren't necessary for traveling carnival workers because children attending carnivals are generally with their parents or other adults and under their guidance and supervision.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, agreed the state has a right to suggest a carnival ride operator doesn’t have “control” of a child since the assumption is that a responsible adult is present. But, she added, those adults are likely under the assumption the ride is safe and the people running the ride don't have a history of crimes against children.
Palm supports the FBI fingerprint background checks for seasonal or transient employees who have direct contact with children. Those checks are required under Pennsylvania law for employees and now volunteers who have lived in Pennsylvania less than a decade and have routine and direct contact with children. Employees subject to the FBI checks now will be re-screening every five years, under the Pennsylvania law.
“I do think there is a real need for parents to ask whether (amusement) companies conduct background checks,” she added.
- Illinois has the most restrictive background check laws for traveling amusement workers. It requires carnival owners and operators to perform employee background checks and prohibits registered sex offenders from operating carnival rides. It also bars convicted murderers, rapists or people convicted of other sexual crimes from being hired as a carnival operator or assistant in the state. Adopted in 2007, the law includes $1,000 to $5,000 fines for the first violation and $5,000 to $10,000 for the second offense.
- Massachusetts includes traveling amusements and carnival workers – and owners – in its background check requirements, which only requires statewide checks.
- Following arrests of carnival workers, some individual events including the annual state fairs in Washington State, North Carolina and New Mexico implemented screenings.
- Pennsylvania's new criminal background law in brief
- Requires the criminal background check and child abuse clearance every five years for volunteers and employees that work directly with children on a regular basis. Specifically the law requires background checks for those employees providing “care, supervision, guidance or control of children” or who have “regular and repeated contact” when the youth are still enrolled in high school. Previously those clearances were required for child care workers and school employees, but they did not need to be updated.
- New volunteers need to undergo the checks and clearances as of Aug. 25; existing volunteers have until July 2016 to complete checks. New and existing employees have until Dec. 31 to undergo or update checks.
- Employees who have lived in Pennsylvania less than 10 years will be required to undergo a more thorough FBI criminal background clearance that involved a fingerprint check, under the new law. The fingerprint check requirement makes Pennsylvania unusual among other states, since the check is generally reserved for specific industries such as military, finance and education. The results are forwarded to the State Department of Human Services who make the final determination of whether the employee is able to hold a position around children.
- The new Child Protective Services Law emerged as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, and was signed last year by former Gov. Tom Corbett. As part of the law, anyone convicted of a felony, including drug crimes, within the last five years, is banned from working with and volunteering with children.