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Saturday, January 7, 2017
Lower Southampton official: Public safety director 'a bad hire'
Robert P. Hoopes
Posted January 5, 2017
When the Lower Southampton supervisors were considering candidates to oversee the township's police, fire and emergency service departments roughly a year ago, one resume stood out: Robert P. Hoopes.
The 69-year-old Doylestown Township resident was known in Lower Southampton where he was born and raised. A decorated military veteran, Hoopes worked as a Lower Southampton police officer from 1969 to 1988 before retiring on disability. He returned to law school, become an attorney and then practiced criminal and civil law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He did work for the township as a conflict attorney in 2015.
On the surface, he appeared to be the ideal person to lead the township’s first responders, Supervisor Chairman Patrick Irving said.
“We really thought we had the right guy,” he said. “We really thought we had it, hands down.”
That was until Dec. 16, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia unsealed its grand jury indictment against Hoopes, as well as two longtime Lower Southampton public officials — District Judge and former state constable John I. Waltman, 59, and deputy constable Bernard Rafferty, 62 — on money laundering charges. The three are accused of conspiring to launder at least $400,000 that undercover investigators told them during a sting operation had been the proceeds of health care fraud, illegal drug trafficking and bank fraud, according to the indictment. The men allegedly received $80,000 to launder the money.
Hoopes was terminated from his job in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, less than a year after he was hired in a unanimous vote. Rafferty and Waltman, both of Lower Southampton, are suspended without pay from their respective public jobs.
This afternoon, the three are to be arraigned on the charges in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
Lower Southampton officials say they were blindsided by the allegations of crimes the U.S. Attorney's Office said took place between June 2015 and November. But the officials also acknowledge that a background check performed as part of the hiring process involving Hoopes was lacking. For example, two supervisors said they were unaware of a 2009 New Jersey Supreme Court Disciplinary Review Board citation against Hoopes for "improper" conduct.
“We need to fix the process,” Irving said. “We made a bad hire here.”
Lower Southampton Manager John McMenamin, a former township supervisor, was responsible for overseeing the hiring process, according to the supervisors, and multiple department heads narrowed the original 10 candidates to five or six. The top picks were then presented to the supervisors, who reviewed the resumes and conducted two rounds of interviews with the finalists, according to Irving and McMenamin.
Lower Southampton police performed a criminal background check on the top candidates, as was done with Hoopes, but no additional checks were conducted for the public safety director, according to McMenamin. Job candidates are expected to bring up any potential conflicts of interest during the interview process, he added. Candidates also must pass a drug test, which is standard in most townships, according to multiple township managers.
A simple online search under Hoopes' name found the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Review Board had issued him a “letter of admonishment” for engaging in conflicts of interest in 2005 and 2006. The letter cited three incidents in which Hoopes, licensed to practice in New Jersey since 1989, engaged in conflicts of interest. The letter does not state if all three infractions had involved the same client.
McMenamin said that during the interview process Hoopes mentioned something about a "mistake” he had made “more an error in judgment in the past.” But the manager could neither recall if Hoopes' reference to a "mistake" was about the ethics admonishment in New Jersey nor recall whether he had passed along what Hoopes had said to the township supervisors during their part of the interviews.
In one incident, Hoopes sued his own client while still the attorney of record in a personal injury matter, obtained a judgment against the client and executed on it. In another, Hoopes sponsored a client’s race car and advertised his law practice on the car. The third incident involved Hoopes' purchase of his client’s interest in a race car they jointly owned while representing the client in pending litigation, according to the disciplinary record.
The disciplinary board’s letter noted no evidence was produced showing Hoopes' client had suffered economic harm, and that Hoopes recognized a conflict of interest existed and attempted to find his client a new attorney before filing a lawsuit against him. Hoopes also had no previous disciplinary record in the state.
“Nevertheless, your conduct has adversely reflected not only upon you as an attorney but also upon all members of the bar. Accordingly, the Board has directed the issuance of this admonition to you. A permanent record of this occurrence has been filed with the Clerk of the Supreme Court and the Board's office,” the letter stated.
Lower Southampton Supervisor Keith Wesley said he was told nothing about Hoopes’ admonishment for conflicts of interest. If he had been told, it likely would have influenced his vote, he added.
“Those are things I look at,” he said. “It wasn’t brought to our attention. I assume everything that needed to be checked was done before finalists appeared before supervisors.”
Irving, the board chairman, also said the admonishment likely would have raised questions for him.
“This has been a terribly hard learning experience for all of us,” he added. “Whenever something like this happens you think what could I have done. I don’t know anything more. It’s almost embarrassing. We’ve just got to dig deeper.”
Digging deep into the backgrounds of applicants for high-profile positions is what some other municipalities do. The vetting can include multiple checks for department heads that are done internally or by outside investigators.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors recommends background checks tailored to the job functions a prospective employee would perform, according to the group’s legal counsel, Scott Coburn. Applicants for jobs that involve handling public funds should undergo a credit check and employees operating municipal vehicles should have driving records checked, he said.
Public safety positions might involve “more rigorous” — and reoccurring — background checks after a person is hired, Coburn added.
“It is definitely becoming more commonplace that municipalities are using consultants and executive search firms for more high-profile hiring,” Coburn added. “A lot depends on the township’s financial resources and the availability of qualified candidates.”
The Newtown Township supervisors hired a private investigation firm to dig deep into the resume of current Township Manager Kurt Ferguson, when he was a job candidate in 2012.
“They have a binder on me,” he said.
The firm not only conducted criminal background and department of motor vehicle checks, but also visited the municipalities where he previously worked and talked with people he worked with beyond the references he listed, he said. They even looked at his undergraduate college transcripts.
“We’d likely do the same thing for a police chief,” he said.
With other positions, including department heads, the background vetting is handled internally — and it can be more challenging — Ferguson said. High-profile job candidates frequently previously worked in similar jobs in the public eye leaving behind an online footprint that lower-level job candidates might not possess.
Complicating matters is that municipal solicitors often advise clients who are contacted about former employees to keep information to a minimum: when they worked there, position held, salary at time they left, Ferguson said.
“What do you do when you call around about someone and no one will talk? In today’s society people are so afraid of being sued,” he said. “For some of these positions, there is no one who will tell me anything.”
In Warminster, police officer candidates undergo a full background check, including credit check, polygraph and interviews with “relevant” people, according to township Manager Gregg Schuster.
Public safety executives undergo a full background check performed either internally or by a consultant, Schuster said. Township manager vetting is “at the discretion of the board,” but background checks are common, he said.
Lower Makefield requires background checks that include criminal history, public records, traffic violations, and credit history for all its job applicants, township Manager Terry Fedorchak said. Lower Makefield police perform the required checks.
Fedorchak said that he handled recent searches to fill public works and finance director jobs himself and brought in a short list of candidates for interviews before the board of supervisors.
Middletown uses in-house staff to review the background and references for most of its job candidates, but an outside consultant was hired when township officials were looking for a new police chief in 2014, township Manager Stephanie Teoli Kuhls said.
“They did an extremely in-depth investigation that included employment as well as financial background information,” Teoli Kuhls said. She added that in-house staff is used to review the background and references of most job candidates.
A background check for an employee in the public eye should include anything that could be seen as a possible conflict or cause an issue for a township, said Marc Bourne, founder and CEO of Know It All Intelligence Group in Bensalem, which performs background investigations for private and public entities. A simple database search conducted by a reputable screening or investigative company would find items including assets such as real property, conflicting addresses, business holdings, education background as well as any public disciplinary citations or actions, Bourne said.
An address search on Hoopes would have found that a website for Raff’s Consulting — a business owned by defendant Bernard Rafferty that figures prominently in the fed’s money laundering case — listed the West Swamp Road address of Hoopes’ former law office as its contact location. The address is also listed as the headquarters for at least two other businesses, according to state corporation records.
“Not that it would be a red flag, but this would definitely be reflected in a final report to a search committee or board of supervisors,” Bourne added. “It would be up to (the board) to decide whether it warrants questioning the applicant."
Retired Hatfield police chief and public safety director Robert Stanley, now owner of Intercounty Investigations in Harleysville, has specialized in background checks on prospective municipal employees for the last five years. Many municipalities are using outside consultants to background check low- and mid-level employees, as well as high-profile ones, to protect themselves, he said.
His in-depth background checks can cover personal, civil, military, criminal, residency and education history. Some presentations, as Stanley calls his reports, are 100 pages.
“When hiring higher-level managers, you can’t be too safe. You have to do this,” Stanley added. “You want to know more comprehensive information to verify what they are telling you is the truth. I want to make sure the municipality is absolutely getting the best candidate they can get, and knows there are no issues.”