City attorney: Story behind his selection
STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of March 15, 2012)
At a time when jobs are tough to get and many employers go so far as to check out an applicant’s social networking sites like Facebook, how is it that four of five Vero Beach City Council members voted to hire an Ohio man as their new city attorney but didn’t know about his arrests on prostitution charges in the 1990s?
Daniel “KC” Collette was tapped for the $120,000-a-year city attorney job March 6. An assistant county attorney in Ohio, he applied for the Vero job several months ago.
The decision to hire Collette raises a series of questions about the city’s diligence and procedures for checking out an applicant’s qualifications and background for such a critical and important job.
Mayor Pilar Turner said no one person or entity should shoulder the blame for the embarrassing revelations although she said she felt blindsided.
“I think it is such a shame,” she said. “Mr. Collette was an incredibly enthusiastic and bright candidate.”
She said she feels the process worked the way it is set up to because the city does not conduct thorough background checks on a short list of candidates. “It was just a bit devastating to get this news late in the game.”
Collette said he got a call from Robert Anderson, the head of the city’s human resources department, about four weeks ago asking if he was still interested in the position.
The 66-year-old attorney and councilman in Hancock County, Ohio, who is also a church deacon, former Little League coach and an adjunct professor instructor at his law school alma mater in northern Ohio, said he felt compelled to give it a shot.
A job with Vero, a city where he practiced law beginning in the late 1970s when he worked for a state agency, he said was hopefully going to be his last stop and after legal career that spanned decades.
Now, his future here is anyone’s guess.
The city will meet Thursday to discuss the matter after learning of Collette’s arrests during two reverse prostitution stings while a public employee in Palm Beach County.
“I knew one way or another it would come out,” said Collette. “It wasn’t something that I was trying to hide.
“It’s out now, and it’s OK.”
After being tapped as a finalist for the job, Collette downloaded the city employment application from its website.
Among the typical questions was check box that asked if the applicant had ever been convicted of any offense against the law, or pleaded guilty, no contest or had adjudication withheld or entered a court sponsored program. It also asked if the applicant is presently under charges for any offense against the law.
Collette marked yes. He also explained the basics in the line provided: 1993 & 1995, Soliciting Prostitution, W.P.B, Fla. Adjudication withheld.”
After council voted to hire him, Collette sat down the following night and wrote to members of the city council as well as the head of the recruiting agency that picked his resume from the stack of about 55 applicants. The letter was sent at 11:32 p.m. on March 7.
“I am writing to let you know my appreciation you showed in me at your Tuesday meeting, but more importantly, to address the issues regarding my inappropriate personal behavior in the years between 1993 and 1995. Causing that pain to my family, friends and co-workers was the most difficult experience I have ever had to face, but now suddenly realizing that years later I may be causing that same pain to the city which my wife and I have come to love and to you, the ones elected to lead the city, is a burden I prayed I would never have to bear.
“I will offer no excuses for my previous behavior, except to say, without it having occurred, I would not be the completed person that I am today. Accordingly, I shall focus on the person I have become and leave it to you to decide whether I still remain the one you would consider to be your city attorney.”
Both in his letter and in a telephone interview with Vero Beach 32963, Collette said he never intended to keep the arrests secret from council members.
In fact, one council member whom he refused to name knew about the arrests and said it was best not to bring it up unless asked, Collette said.
Collette said he told David Johnson, the man whose company, HR Dynamics, got the contract to help in the national search process for a city attorney, that he had been arrested and it was all out there for him to see should be want to look into it.
Johnson did not search the web before moving Collette’s name to the top group of applicants for council members to interview.
Johnson said he asked Collette during a telephone interview if he had been arrested and convicted for any offense. When Collette said he had been arrested was not adjudicated, Johnson said he stopped asking questions.
From there, Johnson said he didn’t press because he said his hands were bound by federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws overseeing employment discrimination.
There is no federal law that clearly prohibits an employer from asking about arrest and conviction records. “However using such records as an absolute measure to prevent an individual from being hired could limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups and thus cannot be used in this way,” states EEOC guidelines.
“(The law) leaves it open to ask,” said an EEOC representative. The representative said that Johnson would have been within guidelines to ask about the nature of the arrests and circumstances.
Several states limit the use of arrest and convictions records by perspective employers, but there are certainly no laws about searching the internet or asking references such tough questions.
Johnson said he didn’t learn what Collette was arrested for until he got a call from the head of the city’s human resources department the day after Collect was tapped for the job.
Anderson told Vero Beach 32963 that someone brought the news of Collette’s past arrests to his attention after doing an internet search.
Even with the news out in the open, Johnson said he cannot find a person to say a single negative thing about Collette’s abilities and integrity.
“Since that time, I will tell you that I have talked to six or seven people who have known him and (they say) this is terrific guy,” Johnson said.
Collette, who has been married for 36 years, said he is a better person today because of his failings years ago.
He said he underwent counseling with the best place that he could find after his second arrest because it jolted him into the reality that he “had a problem and if not radically confronted, it would become increasingly destructive.”
“Thankfully, this became a saving grace and turning point in my life from which I should never look back – but, also, never deny,” he said in his letter to the city. “Both counseling and the support of my wife during this period cannot be overstated. It allowed me to understand things about myself I had never known and gain the power and confidence to move forward as a new person. As a result of this life stumble and, yes, intense pain, I know I have become not only a better husband and father, but also citizen and attorney.
“I am devoted to my family, community, and the government which I serve and, if you are still able to have faith in me, you have my promise that I will show the same devotion to you and the citizens of Vero Beach. However, if you feel I am no longer the right person for the job, I will understand and not feel slighted in any manner. I have sat in your position for the last 14 years and I truly understand the spectrum of public scrutiny and difficult decisions you face each day.”
Johnson said counseling to battle addictions like alcoholism or drug abuse can make a person better in the end. “You can come out stronger as a person and there are other people who are still in denial about what they did,” he said.
Johnson’s company stands to make $5,000 for work on the city attorney job search.
The contract for the search process said that HR Dynamics was responsible for screening and evaluating the resumes and applications for the job.
Collette said he was never asked to fill out an application, the one that he answered yes to when asked if he had been arrested, until after he was tapped for the job.
The contract company is then responsible for conducting telephone interviews with the applicants deemed most qualified on paper.
The list, according to the contract, is then culled again and more interviews would be done until three finalists were picked for consideration by the city council.
From that point, background checks would be conducted and employment, as with the case of Collette, would depend on the outcome of the background check which is the city’s ultimate responsibility and not entirely shouldered by HR Dynamics.
That could change after the council conducts its special meeting Thursday.
Turner said she’d like to find out the costs of conducting background checks on top applicants before a decision on who to hire is made.
Johnson agreed that it may be prudent.
Council member Tracy Carroll said she was under the impression the background check was done prior to the vote.
Still, she seemed willing to let the Collette’s past stay there and not use it against him to question his judgment.
People change over time, Carroll said. The two spent about two hours together, one hour during his interview and another hour when Collette was visiting as a Rotarian. The both belong to the group.
“He was the deacon at his church and it seems like they have forgiven him. If his wife has forgiven him and his family has forgiven him, I don't see where it's up to me to make that moral judgment,” Carroll said.
When Mayor Turner was asked why in her opinion that no one did even a cursory check on say Google, Turner said: “I don’t think anyone thought to.”
Had one checked the internet early on, Johnson, council members or the city’s human resources department would have learned from press clippings from the 1990s that in January of 1993, Collette was one of 62 men arrested in a prostitution sting in West Palm Beach.
At the time of his arrest, Collette was making $80,000 a year as assistant county attorney. A prominent Catholic priest was also nabbed in the sting. Both men were accused of soliciting an undercover police woman for sex.
Collette was suspended for 10 days, his pay was cut by $25,000 and he was demoted to a job in the county water department.
At the time, Collette had been a deacon at his Baptist church in West Palm Beach. He resigned from that position.
In less than 2½ years, Collette was arrested again for offering another undercover officer $10 for sex.
That was apparently the last straw for Palm Beach County officials.
“There comes a time when you have to let go in order to hold on, and there comes a time when you have to be honest with yourself,” Collette was quoted as saying in a 1995 article in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. “God has definitely revealed to me that I have a problem.”
After his second arrest, he was asked to resign.
“I certainly tried to save his job,” then Palm Beach County Water Utilities Director Bevin Beaudet told the Sun-Sentinel. “I tried to put together a punishment severe enough that would allow him to get treatment and continue to contribute to the department. But in the long run, the seriousness of his actions was such that it wasn’t possible.”
Collette didn’t fight his ouster, and 17 years later Beaudet, sent the city of Vero Beach a letter of recommendation for Collette. The letter speaks of Collette’s abilities and personality, citing how he represented Palm Beach County on many complex utility-related issues.
“Mr. Collette has a highly engaging personality, good legal and interpersonal skills and is an effective negotiator. I am quite certain that he would be an effective attorney for any local government or its utility.”
Regardless of what’s happens with the job, Collette said he is at peace with his life and the man he became as a result of his arrests and intense counseling.
“It’s a hard thing to say, but I’m glad that it came up. There should be no secrets especially for a public employee,” he said.
Staff Writer Lisa Zahner contributed to this report.