PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority was grilled by legislators for his decision to hire ex-convicts to drive around the elderly and disabled.
"Due to so many different projects I was slightly distracted," Odimgbe told legislators. "We decided to discontinue the program."
The hearing – held by the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government – was called to explore the RiDE program.
Odimgbe was questioned first about entering into an agreement with nonprofit Open Doors which finds job placement for former inmates. Target 12 revealed RIPTA hired two drivers with lengthy criminal records, including assault.
"We could have done things differently." Odimgbe testified. "Could we have used them in a different capacity? Yes, you bet. Those are now the lessons learned from the whole process."
Chairman of the committee, Sen. John Tassoni asked Odimgbe if he was aware of the criminal records of the men he hired.
"I was aware they had blemishes," Odimgbe said.
"Blemishes?" questioned Tassoni. "They're more than blemishes. It's a black eye for the entire state."
State Senator Francis Maher took issue with Odimgbe's explanation that he was distracted from overseeing the program he launched
"I don't know what that distraction would where we are literally putting people at risk," said Maher.
State Senator Joshua Miller – who is not a part of the committee but is outspoken on public transit issues – said while the decision to place the former inmates behind the wheel of a RiDE bus may have been a bad one, it shouldn't reflect poorly on Open Doors.
"I would encourage any group private or public to be involved in reentry especially if it's administered by a group like Open Doors," Miller said.
Last week State Senator Harold Metts issued a release backing Odimgbe's decision to launch into the program.
"Once someone has paid their debt to society, served their time, repented and turned their lives around for the better, they deserve another chance" Metts said in the statement. "We need to show more love, and stop the continued punishment that goes beyond the sentence these individuals have already served."
Tassoni also questioned if the drivers, who no longer work for RIPTA, were paid with taxpayers dollars to be trained.
Odimgbe said the individuals paid for their own way to be tested for a special license but the state did pay for their on-the-job training.
Separately, members of the Local 618 of the Amalgamated Transit Union – which represents RIPTA drivers – were holding a no confidence vote in Odimgbe earlier in the day.
"There are certain decisions being made by our CEO, that is having a negative impact on the service RIPTA provides to citizens of RI and the business community," said union president Paul Harrington.
According to Harrington, the "Risky RiDE" investigation was the "final straw" that pushed his membership into entering into the vote.
"We believe in second chances but we think it was a lack of good judgment on Mr. Odimgbe's part, hiring those individuals to drive in that particular system, Harrington said. "They offer a very specialized transportation to senior and disabled and elderly community."
Harrington said it is the first time he can recall in his 16 years with RIPTA that the union took a no confidence vote in their CEO.
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