Tampa Head Start Employees Safe For Now
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01/03/11 Janelle Irwin
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The jobs of two Head Start employees are in jeopardy because of their alleged involvement of a questionable book purchase. Last Thursday the agency failed to resolve all of the issues presented during an Emergency Policy Council Executive Meeting.

The future of Tampa Head Start employees Michael Jimenez and Marie Mason was called into question after an investigation regarding their involvement in the purchase of 750 copies of a book authored by Jimenez’s wife. The organization claimed that the employees’ actions constituted severe breaches in ethical policies that warranted termination. Christopher Rodems, who represents Jimenez, believes that the county’s investigation was not thorough.

"I have been involved with investigative reports with USF, Hillsborough County Sheriff's office, Polk County Sheriff's office, and many other government agencies. I've never seen an investigator not quote witnesses, and there is not one quote in there. He had, the investigator had recorded statements. He could have sat down with his recorder and put a quote mark in and typed out exactly what was said and closed the quote and we would know exactly what the witness said. He relied extensively, completely on paraphrasing and summarization."

The Policy Council granted Rodems two weeks to prepare a defense for his client who he said did not participate in any terminable offenses. Rodems said that Jimenez cannot be terminated for his involvement in this book purchase because he was not the purchasing agent.

"They accused him of breaking a state law that says a purchasing agent can't purchase from his wife. He was never the purchasing agent so he didn't violate that statute. And he didn't directly purchase anything from his wife. Head Start did, and he didn't sign off on the purchase order. In his department, which is fiscal, he didn't have any role in purchasing books for children. That was handled by Miss Mason's side of things."

After hearing testimony from Mason’s attorney Thaxter Cooper, the Policy Council passed a motion to exclude approval to terminate Mason on the Policy’s January 27th agenda. Mason’s position remains intact for now, but Hillsborough’s Department of Health and Social Services director David Rogoff said that Mason’s termination can still be pursued.

"If we choose to continue with the recommendations to terminate, then we would have to set up what's called a resolution process that was what was explained. So we have to decide, Mr. Marrow and myself and other folks from the county as to what we'll do."

Head Start employee Dawn Dasher also appeared on Thursday’s agenda for possible termination for unrelated reasons. But, Dasher provided information about the book purchases that may qualify her for whistleblower protection from termination. Her case could not be resolved at this meeting. Policy Council member Ken Perry said he did not appreciate that the county did not provide enough information.

"I really believe it's hogwash that a different attorney told you that you couldn't come back and tell us what you said tonight. You didn't necessarily have to give us particulars, but I think we, as the executive committee, deserve the respect of you coming back to us and saying, 'hey, there's an additional investigation going on and the information that you guys asked for, I am unable to get it to you until such time as that investigation is completed.' "

Policy Council members expressed other concerns about the amount of information they got from the county. Perry said he heard more information from the media than he did from the county regarding the investigation of Jimenez and Mason.

"There was a version in the St. Petersburg Times, there was a version in the Tampa Tribune, there was a version in the Florida Sentinel, many people called me and gave me their versions, and now in the nth hour we get the County's version. You can imagine how my mind is spinning and I understand all about public requests, but if we are the final group to make that decision, you guys have to find a way to get us that information before they get it."

Perry wasn’t the only one who felt unprepared though. Rogoff said that he did not realize there would be attorneys involved and recommended that the Policy Council hold off on decisions until their own attorneys could be present.

"The county already has employed attorney's, so we will, as the county we have attorneys. The issue was, at the meeting tonight, we didn't bring our attorney because we didn't know there would be lengthy statements from the attorneys for Miss Mason and Mr. Jimenez."

The Policy Council will meet again to hear arguments from Jimenez’s attorney on January 13. Rogoff did not say whether the county would have its own representation at that meeting.

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