In past 3 years, Ohio DOC has re-hired 30 fired employees

By Paul Aker
The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The charges were serious, and so were the consequences -- at least initially.

A guard at the Ross Correctional Institution was accused of using a workplace computer to show sexually explicit images to a female co-worker. According to state personnel records, he also made lewd comments to the co-worker about her body -- with an inmate looking on.

A guard at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility was accused of failing to patrol the prison's perimeter and then lying about it. An internal investigator's frustration was evident during a videotaped interrogation: "I'm tired of you putting this institution in jeopardy."

A guard at the Mansfield Correctional Institution was caught delivering a coffee can containing marijuana to an inmate. The guard said the can simply showed up in his Jeep one day, and he denied knowing that any drugs were inside it. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that what he did was wrong.

All three guards were fired.

But now, all three men are back at work at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

And it turns out they have plenty of company.

An analysis by WBNS-TV (Channel 10) revealed that in the past three years, the department has reinstated at least 30 employees fired for disciplinary reasons.

The prison department's work force currently includes a guard who was fired for lying to superiors, another who was dismissed for using excessive force on inmates and another who was terminated after threatening to shoot his co-workers.

The agency also reinstated a guard who was arrested for violating the terms of his probation.

In all, about one-tenth of the correctional workers removed during the past three years have been reinstated, although sometimes at a lower rank, records show.

It's not clear how that percentage compares with the reinstatement figures at other state agencies. The state says it doesn't have across-the-board records.

"I wouldn't put them back on the payroll, no matter what," said Henry Eckhart, a spokesman for the government-watchdog group Common Cause Ohio.

"We've got no business paying somebody that doesn't belong on the job. That's a danger to the job. That's an insult to other employees."

The female co-worker whose complaints of sexual harassment led to the dismissal of the guard at the Ross Correctional Institution has sued the employee and the state.

Another staff member at Ross, a woman who says the same man subjected her to explicit photos and vulgar comments, said she was "disgusted" when the employee was reinstated four months after his termination.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stands by its actions.

"We don't feel that shows a failure of our agency in terminating employees," spokeswoman Julie Walburn said.

Department officials say they're looking out for taxpayers' wallets.

The bulk of the state's prison guards are union members who work under agreements that allow them to appeal any dismissal and, if necessary, seek arbitration.

Walburn said the agency will reinstate a fired worker only when there's a risk that an independent arbitrator will force it to restore the employee's job -- possibly with back pay.

"And if we take that arbitration irresponsibly, then I'm sure there would be a cost to taxpayers that I'm sure they don't want to bear," she said.

Common Cause's Eckhart, a Columbus lawyer, recommends a different approach.

"You fire the guy," he said. "You make sure you have a basis for firing him that will hold up if he appeals. Then you stick to it."

Agency officials declined to describe the criteria they use to gauge the likelihood that a terminated employee might prevail at arbitration. But, they say, the system works.

"We have to take action we believe is in the best interest of this agency and the state of Ohio," Walburn said.

WBNS-10TV researcher Joel Chow contributed to this story.

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