Watchdog journalism helps keep local government honest
TBO.comThe issue: Hiring key county personnel without vetting their backgrounds. Our opinion: A recipe for disaster.
Published: April 16, 2011
Published: April 16, 2011
Once again, Hernando County government is made to look foolish because officials didn't follow their own sound hiring practices — ones that any legitimate business follows when making key hiring decisions.
We're talking about the hiring and subsequent blink-of-an-eye firing of Hernando Beach dredge project supervisor Gregory Jarque after a Hernando Today news story detailed the contractor's criminal history.
Hernando Today senior reporter Michael Bates did what county officials should have done from the start: He made a bunch of phone calls and records requests to find out if Gregory Jarque really is who he claims to be.
Turns out, Jarque's a convicted arsonist who pleaded guilty to the felony charge in 1996 in Suffolk County, N.Y. Jarque and another person set fire to an auto parts store on Long Island. He served three months in jail and five years of probation.
However, when county commissioners hired him last week at $152,500 to supervise the ill-fated Hernando Beach dredge project, they had no idea who they were really hiring.
That's because no one bothered to check. They took the advice of their administrator, David Hamilton, and rushed the hiring through as an "emergency" measure to get the long-delayed dredge project moving forward.
Now they all have egg on their faces.
And even though Hamilton reportedly told another newspaper that a cursory background check had been done, no such check was ever made before Jarque was hired. Hamilton admitted that to Bates following the publication of our story Friday morning.
What we now know is that Jarque should never have been hired. There's a question as to whether he should even be in possession of a building contractor's license. State law requires any convictions to be noted on license applications. We're working on getting the documentation.
You'd think county officials would have learned a valuable lesson late last year when Bates discovered that Lisa Hammond was recommended by Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai to be the county's purchasing director at a salary of $105,000. Nicolai didn't do a background check. When Bates started looking into her background, Hammond couldn't produce verification of the educational accomplishments she boasted on her resume. She claimed to have a doctorate degree from a university in Zimbabwe, Africa, that couldn't be verified and a master's degree from a defunct "university" known for being a notorious diploma mill.
Nicolai rescinded Hammond's hiring after Bates' stories were published, but kept her on at $55 an hour as a contract employee. Hammond quit in March, citing a need to get out of the public spotlight.
In county government, it's becoming more and more apparent it's who you know, not necessarily what you know.
Apparently, a lot of folks were also fooled by Jarque's background because of his community involvement here. He's on numerous boards, including the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce executive board, and volunteers for several nonprofit organizations, including the Arc Nature Coast, for which he supervised the construction of a hurricane shelter at no cost.
Is Greg Jarque a bad guy? By no means, if you ask those in Hernando County who have worked with him. They all say he's a great guy and were shocked by the revelation that he's a convicted arsonist.
Should that taint all the good things he's done since coming to Hernando County in 1998?
People change. They screw up and sometimes take those unfortunate life lessons and build on them for the better. That apparently is what Jarque has done in recent years in Hernando County.
Unfortunately, you also can't live a lie, and you can't work for the taxpayers in the heat of the spotlight if you're a convicted felon.
Your past is your past. It is what it is.
By not revealing his past and keeping mum when his credentials were questioned by Commissioner Dave Russell, Jarque, in essence, lied.
Jarque's past certainly would have been a contributing factor in his getting the dredge supervisor's job. Now Hamilton is backpedaling, saying officials took a deeper look at Jarque after Bates' story was published. Hamilton is saying that Jarque was fired because he's not a general contractor, but simply a building contractor, and Jarque didn't correct Commissioner Russell when he stated that Jarque was qualified to supervise the dredge project.
Hamilton screwed up. It's on him.
Hopefully, everyone in local government will learn from this lesson. That goes for anybody who runs for public office as well. At Hernando Today , we see part of our jobs as government watchdogs. It is one of the top priorities on our agenda. We are watching — and digging.
Our community deserves to know the truth about our government no matter how uncomfortable or painful it is to report or read. At all levels of government, watchdog journalism is important. At the national level, our very freedom as a people depends on it.