Saturday, July 11, 2015

Carnival workers not covered under Pennsylvania criminal background checks

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.

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.”
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.

Charity Elaine Johnson
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.

Bruce Coppage
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.
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.


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