published Monday, April 11th, 2011

Beck-backed group hired man with crime record

by Dan Whisenhunt

A youth athletic association says it hired a man with a criminal record to build bathrooms at Woodmore Elementary’s football field and paid for the work in part with taxpayer money from a county commissioner’s discretionary fund.

The head of the Woodmore Hall Youth Football Association said the group did not know about Wallace Fortson’s record when it hired him.

Fortson, who is suing the association for $4,800 for firing him, declined to comment.

County Commissioner Greg Beck gave $7,000 out of his taxpayer-funded discretionary money for the project in March 2010, according to the county finance office.

Beck said he was “appalled” to hear about the contractor’s background.

“In this day and time, you can’t trust people,” he said. “You have to do a background check, and I’m sure that board of directors [of the association] will take a long look at the way they do business in the future.”

County officials say that there is little oversight of money commissioners hand out from their discretionary funds.

The association also received $10,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Community Foundation President Pete Cooper said the foundation can’t keep an eye on the particulars of every project it funds.

Seeking a deal

Arthur Watley, CEO of the Woodmore Hall Youth Football Association, said the foundation bought the materials and members wanted to do the work themselves but Fortson offered to do it for less money.

“I’ve known him for a number of years,” Watley said. “I had a mortgage company. I did loans for him.”

Watley alleges that Fortson did not finish the job and that he returned materials to Home Depot for store credit, which he kept.

Watley said he did not file a criminal complaint.

“We were going to let this guy go ahead and go on and take our losses and leave,” Watley said.

He said he did not know that Fortson had a lengthy criminal record.

According to court files, Fortson has pleaded guilty to multiple charges including passing worthless checks, minor theft and grand larceny. Charges of facilitating the sale of marijuana, powder and crack cocaine were dismissed, according to court files.

Fortson referred all questions to his attorney, Phil Durrence, who said Thursday he was not aware of his client’s record.

Watley said the organization paid Fortson $3,100 of the $4,000 he was owed. In his Hamilton County Circuit Court lawsuit, Fortson claims he is owed $2,300 and he seeks $2,500 for breach of agreement.

Who’s watching?

Hamilton County Schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said the school system owns the football field and likely looked over the association’s plans for the bathrooms.

But she said it is not the system’s responsibility to conduct background checks on a contractor the association hired.

“It’s not our issue to look into,” she said. “It’s the community’s issue. All we do is ensure the plans are in compliance with state law.”

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said what happened to Beck could happen to any commissioner.

Henry said the commission should adopt rules to ensure contractors who receive taxpayer money from the discretionary funds are vetted thoroughly before they receive work.

Beck agreed.

County Auditor Bill McGriff said the county reserves the right to investigate any organization that receives taxpayer money. But he and Finance Administrator Louis Wright said the only oversight on these expenditures is done on the front end to make sure the organizations receiving the money are legitimate.

McGriff said if an organization using taxpayer money makes a bad decision about hiring, that doesn’t necessarily mean the money was misspent.

“It’s a bad decision on the part of the organization that’s doing a good thing,” he said.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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bamareb said...

If the only reason that they fired him was because he had a police record that wasn't a sex crime and all he was doing was building outside bathrooms at a sports field then I feel it was wring to fire him. If he has served the time for his crimes then he had paid his dues to the public for his crimes. I could see it if he was a coach and working full time with the kids but not having derect contact with any kids what ever happened to giving someone a second chance that had done his time and paid for his crimes. I could see it had they fired him for taking supplies back to Home Depot and keeping the money when they paid for it however that wasn't the reason they fired him.

April 11, 2011 at 4:49 a.m.
sangaree said...

You say you want ex-felons to get jobs rather than go back into their old trade of committing crimes, yet you make this news? If the man did nothing wrong and was trying to turn his life around and make an honest living I can't see his prior history should in anyway affect his ability find honest work. Isn't that what President Obama was asking the nation to do? Give ex-criminals a chance to work? Otherwise, they have no other means to survive than to go back into committing whatever crimes that got them into trouble in the first place. You can't have it both ways. We have lawyers, judges, prosecutors, cops CEOs, and even NEWSPAPER REPORTERS, LOL! who have committed crimes, but it never affects their positions. Usually their charges are reduced, their records later expunged so it won't interfere with their ability to maintain their ability to provide for themselves and their families. Beck should not have caved the way he did. He should have taken a stand and fought for the guy.

April 11, 2011 at 9:16 a.m.
mrnicecat said...

Dave Wisenhunt made a huge error in judgement. The fact that there were other charges should never have been brought up. Those charges were dismissed so therefore they have no meaning to the acticle. All that kind of reporting does is inflame the readers to pass judgement based on something that legally does not exhist. Bad form Mr. Wisenhunt. It amounts to being a gossipy old queen.

April 11, 2011 at 12:02 p.m.
qtree said...

it is true you should not judge people from there past. but you need to find out if a person has truly changed. but wallace fortson is not a changed person. he still owes my company money from April 2007. I feel no one should ever trust him.

April 11, 2011 at 12:35 p.m.
Humphrey said...

he's got two turn tables and a microphone.

April 11, 2011 at 2:20 p.m.
allGODSchildren said...

qtree, why didn't or don't you go after him in the courts? That is if the statute of limitations hasn't run out. If the man is unable or not allowed to work due to a past criminal record, then maybe that's why you can't get your pay.

mrnicecat I disagree. Mr. Wisenhunt did the right thing by bringing his past history into the situation, since it plays a direct decision into the bases for the story. However, I'm disappointed in Beck because he's often sounded the drums that employers hire ex-felons to give them a new start in life, but then he runs and hide to save his own behind by pretending he wasn't aware? He should have showed he has some balls and said "Heck! The man builds good toilets or something to hell! With what the rest of you say! I hired the man for his good work, not what he's done in the past."

April 11, 2011 at 2:41 p.m.
qtree said...

yes you are right i should go after him in court. i am not sure if my statue of limitation is out but i am going to find out.i have talked with him several times since then by phone and face to face. but still no pay. thanks for comment

April 11, 2011 at 3:33 p.m.
Haiku said...

Beck you disappoint me. When you should have used this as a platform to encourage the hiring of ex-cons, you instead tucked your tail between your legs and ran. Like most politicians do in the face of adversity, you're no different when put to the test.

April 11, 2011 at 4:21 p.m.
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