AUSTIN (KXAN) — A City of Austin employee with a lengthy criminal history was recently fired after entering a guilty plea in Bastrop County. However, the city acknowledges he was allowed to keep working after his arrest and without a background check due to city policies and despite being fired by the city 12 years earlier.
Joe Heath was sentenced to five years of community supervision on Wednesday in Bastrop, two weeks after he pleaded guilty to Attempted Indecency with a Child from a 2012 incident involving a young girl.
Bastrop County prosecutor Kristin Burns Metcalf said the City of Austin contacted her shortly after Heath entered his guilty plea.
“The city attorney called and wanted to know the status of the case, what was happening, and what the allegations were,” Metcalf said.
Heath was terminated a short time later, ending his employment with the city which lasted four years even though he had several previous convictions and had been fired by the city once before.
“I would have assumed the City of Austin would have terminated him,” said the child victim’s father who was surprised Heath was allowed to keep working despite the charges against him. “To find out he was still employed with the City of Austin is disappointing.”
Heath first worked with Austin’s Water Utility from 1995 to 2002. A termination notice shows he was fired on July 26th, 2002 for “absenteeism, failure to comply by the terms of time and attendance disciplinary probation, and unauthorized use and/or removal of City of Austin property.’
In addition, his criminal record has multiple previous convictions:
- 1987 – Trespassing (Travis Co)
- 1987 – Assault (Travis Co), 1 yr probation
- 1990 – Assault (Travis Co), 1-year probation
- 2004 – Aggravated Assault w/ deadly weapon (Travis Co), 4-years probation
- 2005 – Money Laundering (La Salle Co) = >$20K <$100K, sentenced to 4-years jail in 2007
- 2006 – Hindering Secured Creditors (Travis Co) = >$100K – $200K
Even with the convictions on his record, Heath was re-hired in 2010 to work for the Austin Public Library to work as a Stores Specialist. He did not have to list previous convictions on his application and the city did not conduct a background check because neither was necessary according to city policies.
The father of the child victim in Bastrop County thinks the City of Austin took a major risk by allowing Heath to keep working.
“They need to redo that policy. Guys like (Heath) are real dangerous.”
BAN THE BOX
When being re-hired in 2010, Heath did not have to disclose his criminal history on his initial job application due to a 2008 resolution passed by the Austin City Council called “Ban the Box.” The movement to remove questions about criminal history on the job application had been adopted in many major cities across the country with the goal of increasing employment opportunities for people with past criminal convictions.
Sponsors for the resolution in Austin said the inability for convicts to obtain employment contributes to high rates of unemployment, repeat offenses, and increased crime. Criminal background checks are still required for City of Austin positions which require contact with children, the elderly, money handling, or safety sensitive jobs.
The city says Heath never held a position which required a background check at the time he was hired and therefore, one was never conducted
According to the National Employment Law Project, 67 cities and counties in 26 states and Washington D.C. have adopted “ban the box” type policies. Austin and Travis County are the only two in Texas. NELP also says the loss of output by people with felony convictions is cause for up to $67 billion in losses to the nation’s economy.
The City of Austin says they became aware of Heath’s arrest six months after charges were filed in the 2012 case. Heath was initially terminated according to a city spokesperson, but he was reinstated through the city’s grievance process pending the outcome of the case.
However, the spokesperson said his job at the Austin Public Library was modified to ensure he would not have contact with minors. In February of 2014, he was transferred to the Transportation Department where he worked as a parking enforcement officer before ultimately being fired after his guilty plea.
Metcalf said the city inquired about the terms of Heath’s probation which restrict him from being in contact with anyone 17-years of age and younger.
“(The City of Austin) said he would not be able to work at the library and I said yes, that would be a violation of community supervision,” said Metcalf.
The City of Austin also offered the following explanation on how criminal offenses are handles:
“For employees in positions that require a Criminal Background Investigation (CBI) there are lists of crimes that, if the employee has committed, may render the employee ineligible to hold the position. For employees in positions that do not require a CBI, if the City becomes aware that the employee is convicted of a crime, the City evaluates the employee’s job responsibilities to determine if the crime is in conflict with the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.”