Franklin County

Courts admit error in felon's hiring

The state court system erred when it hired a persistent felony offender who was on parole to work as a court officer and is changing its rules to make sure the mistake isn't repeated, officials said Friday.

The action comes in response to a July 9 Lexington Herald-Leader article that reported an investigation of Francis Baker, a persistent felony offender who worked as a pre-trial officer at the Lexington-Fayette Detention Center.

"In the case of Mr. Francis Baker, the Administrative Office of the Courts erred by hiring him to serve as a pre-trial officer, a position that required him to monitor criminal defendants," Deputy Director Laurie K. Dudgeon said in a statement to the newspaper. "Going forward, the AOC will put into place the checks and balances necessary to ensure that similar hiring errors are avoided."

The AOC no longer will allow felons to make decisions about criminal defendants, Dudgeon said. In addition, the AOC will track the criminal history of all new hires and will hire felons only for other appropriate jobs at least two years after they have successfully completed parole or probation.

Previously, the court system did not track how many felons it hired.

"The AOC continues to be committed to the philosophy that employment can play a key role in rehabilitating criminal defendants, while also recognizing the importance of public trust and confidence in the court system," she said.

As a pre-trial officer at the Lexington jail, Baker met with new inmates and reviewed their arrests and criminal histories before making bond recommendations to Fayette County judges. Baker also worked at the Fayette County courthouse, in a program that required electronically monitored defendants to have drug screenings as a condition of their release.

Baker was transferred to an administrative job in pre-trial services at AOC's headquarters in Frankfort on June 29 after an investigation of allegations that he misused his authority over defendants.

Baker was hired by the state court system in 2007, while still on parole for his multiple felony convictions.

His felony and misdemeanor convictions date to 1981, including burglary, forgery, possession of cocaine and facilitating the trafficking of controlled substances. Most of Baker's convictions occurred in the 1990s. Baker was arrested other times through 2005, but several charges were dismissed.

Baker declined to comment for this story.

Dudgeon now says Baker never should have been hired as a pre-trial officer because he couldn't effectively perform the job, which requires access to the National Crime Information Center database. Felons aren't permitted to access the database.

AOC spokeswoman Leigh Anne Hiatt confirmed Friday that Baker was trained to use the database by the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond after a pre-trial supervisor erroneously signed a document on Oct. 29, 2007, saying that Baker had never been convicted of a felony charge.

Baker completed that class, and it was only later that the training center discovered he was a felon. His class completion was invalidated after an investigation by the training center, Hiatt said.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year against the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, corrections officer Doris Zirbes alleged that jail officials and Baker ignored a Kentucky State Police order not to access the database.

In her complaint, Zirbes contends she was inappropriately stripped of her rank and placed on leave by jail director Ron Bishop when she told Lexington police and Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson about Baker's criminal history. She says her meetings with police and Larson were protected by Kentucky's Whistleblower Act.

In responding to the lawsuit, city officials said Zirbes was not retaliated against, but she was warned not to talk to outside agencies about problems at the jail.

Her lawsuit also alleges that Baker gave some female inmates preferential treatment and that he improperly put inmates into a drug-testing program that allowed women to be released from jail without court approval.

The complaint said Baker would take female inmates to secluded locations in the jail for up to three hours at a time for private meetings "and that there were concerns among the jail staff that he was misusing his position of authority to improperly access female inmates."

An investigation began in May after jail officials told the AOC about allegations made by an offender in the electronic monitoring program, according to an April 29 internal jail memo written by Detention Center Sgt. Shaun Hubbard.

On July 2, AOC completed an investigation of Baker, which produced inconclusive results, Hiatt said. Still, Baker was transferred to AOC's Frankfort office "out of an abundance of caution" after officials determined he no longer could perform his job effectively, she said.

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.