Just two days after Darnley Hodge took over as the new director of the Orleans Justice Center, heads are rolling.
In light of persistent problems screening applicants to work at the jail, leading to the employment of some people with criminal backgrounds, Hodge on Wednesday fired the sheriff's office’s human resources director and her top assistant.
Until her dismissal Wednesday, Johnette Staes was paid $110,000 to reform the recruitment and hiring system at the troubled jail. When she was hired in January 2017, the lockup was woefully understaffed due to low pay, high turnover and challenging working conditions.
Ironically, when she was hired, Staes had her own red flags that were not caught by the sheriff’s office.
From 2008 to 2011, Staes bounced several checks and ultimately was charged by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s office with issuing worthless checks.
Those charges were later dropped after Staes repaid the money, but her problems continued when she joined the human resources department at The New Orleans Fairgrounds.
For that job, Staes had to apply for a gaming employee permit and pass a background check by the Louisiana State Police. The background check turned up that she had failed to report her worthless checks charges.
However, the real problem came when State Police obtained a statement from Staes about the charges. In a Gaming Control Board ruling revoking her gaming permit, the board stated that Staes “made conflicting statements concerning who wrote the checks and who paid the checks.”
The board determined that Staes failed to prove the “good character, honesty and integrity” required to make her “suitable” for the permit.
Staes’ attorney in the Jefferson Parish case, Gerald DeSalvo, said his client is “a good person who made a simple mistake.”
“They really made a mountain out of molehill,” DeSalvo said about the gaming permit revocation. “She didn’t know she had to disclose the case because she thought it was a civil matter and she had taken care of it.”
Staes later applied to work at the sheriff's office, but officials failed to turn up Staes’ previous problems. Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission watchdog group, later alerted the sheriff about Staes' background.
At the time, Goyeneche said the sheriff’s office told him “they extended her probationary period.”
But under Staes' direction, the sheriff's office continued to miss red flags – including criminal backgrounds – among applicants.
One case exposed in an earlier Eyewitness Investigation involved jail guard Monica Smith. She was hired last year even though she had been arrested about a dozen times on charges including disturbing the peace, battery, criminal damage to property and multiple missed court appearances. Several of those arrests led to convictions.
“When you have multiple arrests and prosecutions for local offenses in your background, that is a red flag,” Goyeneche said.
Smith was ultimately fired after she left the jail during her lunch break, went home and allegedly beat up her boyfriend and doused him with sheriff’s office-issued pepper spray.
A warrant for missing a court date in an earlier disturbing the peace conviction led to Smith's arrest in March 13. After spending the night in jail, Smith returned to the lockup the next day and filed her application to become a guard at the jail.
“Increasing staffing is obviously a priority for us, but it's not just about the numbers, it's about the quality of the people being brought in,” said Emily Washington, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.
MacArthur is the non-profit legal group that sued the sheriff’s office over unsafe conditions at the jail, leading to federal oversight of the jai under a sweeping federal consent decree.
Hiring and staffing the jail has long been recognized as a problem by consent decree jail monitors, and in the past few weeks the sheriff’s office has taken steps to make improvements.
Sheriff’s office spokesman Philip Stelly said an outside consultant has been hired to fix the screening and hiring problems.
“As part of an ongoing review of operations,” Stelly wrote in a statement, “the sheriff’s office has engaged the services of Segal Water Consulting, a human resources consulting firm, to review all aspects of our human resources function, including how we conduct background checks, to ensure we comply with national best practices.”
Staes had been involved in the hiring of the Segal firm, but Staes did not survive the week under Hodge, the newly appointed jail Compliance Director. Hodge took over after the previous director, Gary Maynard, was forced to resign following a scathing report by the federal monitors.
Staes' top assistant, Jasminne Navarre, also was fired by Hodge Wednesday, although she had no known background problems. Navarre, who was making a salary of $75,000 at the sheriff’s office, had worked with Staes at the Fairgrounds.