Slipping Through the Screen

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Jeffrey W. Schrader will not be coming to a television household near you. The 49-year-old Colorado man in September applied to be a technician for U.S. Broadband, the contractor used by Cox Communications Inc. to establish Internet and cable connections at homes in and around Las Vegas.

He failed the background check, which screened for credit history, drug use, driving violations and criminal activity. The investigation discovered active warrants for his arrest on felony charges of sexually exploiting children.

Now, instead of entering the homes of unsuspecting consumers, he’s in jail in Boulder, Colo. — awaiting trial, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department.

Even though he did not directly work for Cox, Schrader represented a cable system or direct-broadcast satellite operator’s worst nightmare: A potential bad actor who might take advantage of the families whose homes he entered. Wrecking the lives of individual families, through seduction of minors, rape of adults or theft of their possessions through theft, also wrecks the reputation of the service provider — and its bottom line. Good will is lost, and profits are punished through legal judgments.

Mary Poquette, co-chairwoman of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, said U.S. businesses suffer $1.2 billion per year in losses from internal theft.

Employees who turn their criminal tendencies loose on the public expose their employers to civil suits for negligent hiring. A study by Liability Consultants Inc., which provides expert witnesses for lawsuits, estimates the average settlement now is $1.6 million.

“Surely the reputation of businesses takes a long time to build up, and that can quickly be ruined, especially when it is shown that an employer has done nothing to protect its customers, other employees or its vendors,” Poquette said.

Large cable-system operators such as Comcast Corp., Adelphia Communications Corp. and Time Warner Cable said they investigate the backgrounds of all direct hires for honesty and criminality; and that they demand the same probing by contractors and sub-contractors.

But no screening system is perfect.

In one 1996 case, Ceotis Franks, an installer working for Comcast Corp., entered a house in Little Rock, Ark., on the pretext of checking for cable signal problems in the area.

He returned later the same day, raped a woman who lived there, tried to murder her and then set fire to the house in an attempt to cover his crime.

She survived and helped send her attacker to prison for a term of 72 years.

THE GOOD CASE

In the Schrader case, a credit check helped uncover the warrants that sent him to jail, according to executives for Secure Signals International, a risk-management firm hired by U.S. Broadband. Credit reports filled in gaps in addresses listed by Schrader on his job application, according to Kathleen McGinnis, vice president of client services. That disclosed a Colorado address Schrader used in 2003 and 2004. Investigators then checked courthouses in Boulder County, and found the active warrant at the Boulder County District Court.

According to the warrant, Schrader and his wife, Loni, had a spat at their Lafayette, Colo., home on March 27, 2003. Three days later, Loni Schrader took floppy disks, containing pornographic images of underage girls, to police. She asserted that her husband had downloaded the pictures from the Internet onto a computer the two shared.

Mrs. Schrader also gave investigators a copy of an e-mail, allegedly written by Schrader. The woman had confronted her husband about the images and in the e-mail allegedly written by Jeffrey Schrader, he responded, “I found some stuff that is downright sick. It’s nude young girl stuff.”

A forensic computer investigation recovered erotic photos of girls younger than 10 years old. A warrant was issued for Schrader’s arrest on Jan. 12, 2004, on 10 counts of sexual exploitation of children. The first image draws a misdemeanor charge, but subsequent images are charged as felonies.

By then, Jeffrey Schrader had left Colorado. Though Loni Schrader informed authorities that her husband has family in Glendale, Ariz., and Las Vegas, Boulder Sheriff’s Department Lt. Joe Gang said authorities had no indication where the suspect had gone.

“We have very few resources to seek [fugitives] out,” the lieutenant said.

McGinnis of Secure Signals said her firm doesn’t always notify police of the data it finds. The company identified Schrader to authorities because the charges alleged crimes against children.

Lt. Dan Flaherty of the Las Vegas Metro Police, who received the message from McGinnis, called Schrader’s arrest “a rare grab.”

Flaherty said the suspect was 'hiding out” at his brother’s home, rarely venturing out except to seek work

Authorities arrested Jeffrey Schrader on Sept. 27. He waived extradition and was returned to Colorado on Oct. 11.

THE BAD CASE

Not all vetting goes according to the book, however. On the other end of the spectrum is a 2003 incident involving an employee of a Sacramento area subcontractor, Links Communications Inc., working for Comcast Corp.

In that case, a convicted rapist managed to work as an installer, entering customers’ homes without Links or Comcast knowing anything was amiss. And he raped again.

The contract employee, Luis Saravia, was making repairs in Carmichael, Calif., on July 30, 2003, when he crossed paths with an intellectually disabled 19-year-old girl. According to a civil suit filed in Sacramento Superior Court, victim “Maria D.” has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old.

Security cameras near the victim’s home recorded Saravia, his Comcast ID visible, following the girl, then helping her over a fence into a neighbor’s yard.

She later reappears, buttoning her pants. She reported the attack to relatives after one of them noticed the grass stains and debris on her clothes and questioned her. A medical exam confirmed the attack, according to the civil suit.

Saravia was convicted Oct. 15, 2004, on eight counts of sodomy, kidnapping and rape of a mentally disabled person, following a trial in California Superior Court in Sacramento County. In January, he was sentenced to 37 years in prison.

Before Saravia was sentenced, the family filed suit in civil court against Comcast, Links, and the firm hired to do the background check, Kroll Background of America Inc.

In this case, the background check failed to determine that Saravia had faked the identity he provided his employer, according to the Oct. 15, 2004, suit.

Saravia had four felony convictions for rape, the victim’s attorney discovered. The assaults occurred against teen-agers in Oregon between 1996 and 1999. Saravia was deported to El Salvador in 2000 but returned to this country.

The civil suit alleged that between 2000 and 2003, Saravia obtained the Social Security number of a dead 11-year-old boy. He used that fake ID to obtain an Oregon driver’s license, according to legal filings.

Background investigators contacted for this story said a thorough check should include investigation of lapses in work history, such as those that would have occurred due to Saravia’s deportation. And the process would have matched his Social Security number to each of his past jobs.

The use of two different numbers would be a clear alert that something was amiss.

SUED AS FRANCHISEE

Comcast was sued because the plaintiff’s attorney asserted the cable company, as the local franchisee, has a non-delegatable duty to protect its customers, even for employees not on its payroll.

A confidential settlement was made in the case earlier this year, said Pam Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento court.

Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said she was not comfortable commenting on a confidential settlement.

Settlements represent a compromise on a disputed claim without an admission of liability by the parties in the suit, Moyer said.

Cable companies are reluctant to talk about how they screen employees or contract workers.

They fear potential employees will use any knowledge they glean to sanitize their records. Further, if the stated procedures fail, the statements may be used against them in court.

For similar reasons, many contractors also decline to discuss hiring practices.

One who would comment on the record is Celia Broadhead, CEO of Frontline Management Inc., a 20-year-old firm with 200 contract employees working nationwide.

It’s up to the customer who orders the employee check to determine its breadth, she said, adding that some cable companies she’s worked with had “very loose” standards.

The depth of background checks often comes down to the bottom line. If the commission to a contractor is small, the background check can be limited.

“You end up drawing from a very questionable pool of workers,” she said. Cable companies “step over dollars to pick up dimes. They forget that the worker represents the cable company, not the contractor.”

Cable operators such as Charter Communications Inc., Comcast and Bright House Networks and telephone company Verizon Communications Inc. have compelled another contractor, TCS Communications LLC of Denver, to strictly evaluate the 250 to 300 subcontractors it puts in the field, as well as its 275 in-house workers.

Time Warner Cable, Cox and Comcast Corp. have extensive checking standards, according to the contractor. Comcast is “very adamant” about adherence to its standards, TCS director of business administration Jody Baker said. That operator does spot audits of TCS’s checks.

The operator bars employment to any felons or those with misdemeanor charges for bodily injury counts such as battery or assault.

These standards have been in place about three years, according to Baker, but the companies have not increased their commission to compensate for the greater scrutiny.

Moyer said her company deals with 30 vendors nationwide who are contracted to do fiber installations. Those vendors “learn the behaviors we expect of them [as] they are our face in the community.

“They’re all accountable, all in the name of good customer service,” she said.

Adelphia Communications Corp. wasn’t as rigorous on background checks in the past as it is now, executives said. Prior to the company’s bankruptcy filing on June 25, 2002, standards and practices for hiring were set regionally, and checks were done by a variety of vendors.

Now, Adelphia has standardized its practices across its systems. Background checks are conducted by HireRight Inc. of Irvine, Calif., said Sunday Sotomayor, Adelphia vice president of human resources.

Employment checks include a drug screen, a criminal check dating back seven years, including pending warrants, a Social Security number trace and verification of educational history, Sotomayor said.

INVITED INTO THE HOME

The invitation into customers’ homes is a privilege Cox takes very seriously, said Steve Schorr, vice president of public and government affairs for its Las Vegas system.

“That privilege mandates that the people we send to the home must be beyond reproach,” he added.

Is criminal activity predictable from a credit check? Probably not. But credit checks are an underutilized screening tool, said Secure Signals CEO Stan McGinnis. Only 19% of companies say they always include a credit check in their screening, according to a recent report from the Society of Human Resource Management, an HR trade group.

When the bills on credit purchases do not match up with stated past addresses, “that’s a huge red flag” that an employee may be hiding something, McGinnis said.

Credit reports can also be an invaluable tool for sizing up the character of a candidate, he added.

“If someone’s consistently 30, 60, 90 days late on their bill payments … they’re not managing their life well,” he said. Credit reports also show things like nonpayment of child or spousal support, he said. He recommends that his clients not hire those candidates.

McGinnis notes that unpaid cable bills listed on the credit check brand a candidate as high risk. “If they don’t respect cable now, how will they respect their employer’s product?”

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