PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) - The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has hired two ex-convicts as drivers for their RIde program, which serves the elderly and disabled, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
The new CEO of RIPTA, Charles Odimgbe, said he entered the agency into a partnership with non-profit Open Doors – an organization that helps former inmates reintegrate into society.
Odimgbe said RIPTA originally hired three men as RIde drivers, but one failed to pass the proper test so was let go before he ever drove a bus. Public records show, however, the prospective driver did take home a paycheck while in the training program.
Two hires passed the proper tests and are currently behind the wheel of a RIde bus.
One of those has a record stretching back more than twenty years including several stints inside the ACI for convictions that include: reckless driving, breaking and entering, assault with a dangerous weapon and dealing cocaine. In all, the driver was charged more than two dozens times, according to court records.
The other recent hire was convicted seven times including a 2010 charge for simple assault. The police report from that incident states he "walk[ed] over to the female, and started to punch her in the face and drag her down the street."
Odimgbe said he was aware the men had a criminal background when he signed off with Open Doors.
"The program is a pilot project that we're starting to see if we can people to become productive members of the community," Odimgbe said. "We were aware upfront that these individuals have had some blemishes in the past and I was committed to helping them to readjust into the community."
An internal RIPTA memo obtained by Target 12 states prospective drivers "must possess evidence of a clear BCI and driving record check." A BCI check is a criminal background examination performed by the Attorney General's office.
Odimgbe said they performed the check and the new hires were trouble free in the last five years. But Target 12 learned both drivers had faced recent misdemeanor charges including one driver who served 60-days at the ACI this year, for pleading no contest to a possession of marijuana charge.
RIPTA did not respond to follow-up questions asking if they examined felonies only.
Target 12 also pulled the driving record of the two men hired by RIPTA and discovered one driver had been charged twice with driving on a suspended license and the other driving without a license on three separate occasions.
"This is a collaborative effort between RIPTA, Department of Labor [and Training] and Open Doors," Odimgbe said. "I think at a minimum we should be applauded for trying at least for trying at least to help someone readjust into the community."
A spokeswoman for The Department of Labor and Training said they did issue three bonds – $5,000 each – to insure RIPTA against employee dishonesty, like theft. But Laura Hart said the DLT did not have any input on job placement.
Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who was appointed to the RIPTA board in June, said the partnership with Open Doors and the hiring of ex-convicts was never brought before the board in the time he has been on it.
"I think obviously there might be a position at RIPTA for somebody. But it might not be driving somebody around that is part of a vulnerable population that we transport," Avedisian said. "I think the whole board would have a concern about that."
Sol Rodriguez, the Executive Director for Open Doors, said their group did not specifically request the men be placed as RIde drivers, but lauded the quasi-public agency for agreeing to help the former inmates.
"RIPTA was forward-thinking in hiring these guys," Rodriguez said. "We know these guys,we've been working with them.They have obviously proven themselves or we would not have sent them to RIPTA if they didn't make good employees."
Odimgbe told Target 12 Open Doors was "supervising" the drivers while they worked at RIPTA, but Rodriguez said that does not mean they monitor the men while driving a bus.
"Once someone gets the job we continue to support them on the job. We don't get them a job and forget about them," Rodriguez said. "We are in constant touch with people we place on the job andour job developer will contact people sometimes weekly,sometimes daily,and then it scales down when someone has been on the job for a year."
Odimgbe said the former inmates were assigned to the RIde program because that was what was available at the time. He said he would be open to placing them in a different position.
"Somebody has to help them readjust into this community," Odimgbe said."If that person is going to be me, I'm willing to stick my neck out and do it."
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