Broken Record

William Isaac got his record expunged. But the information highway gridlocked.

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William Isaac, false felon. - Jimi  Izrael
Jimi Izrael
William Isaac, false felon.
In February 2002, Cleveland cops stopped William Isaac for riding with his high beams on. But when they discovered a crack pipe, they impounded his dilapidated '91 Seville and carted him off to jail. Isaac was charged with possession of drugs (from residue in the pipe) and criminal tools (the pipe itself).

When he arrived at trial that August, Isaac contended that one of his fellow temp employees dropped the pipe in his car. With all the guys doing drugs in the bathroom and parking lot of the Ameritemps office on Prospect, it could have been any one of his comrades, he asserted. He'd even requested a drug test upon arrest to prove his innocence.

The jury bought it, and he was found not guilty on both charges. To restore his heretofore pristine record, he petitioned the court to remove the charges. When he received his expungement papers two months later, he was a man reborn. "The judge said it would be like this never happened," says Isaac.

A year later, he was sitting across the desk of Deborah Frenchic, an Ameritemps job agent, talking about a position he thought would be perfect for his unemployed brother. Frenchic, however, believed Isaac would better suit the ticket.

"Lemme ask you something," she said, looking over his résumé. "I like what I see -- you're qualified enough." But it was a position with the city of Shaker Heights. "You're going to have to pass a drug test and you can't have any felonies." She stared him straight in the eye. "Don't make me waste my time looking it up -- tell me what you got on your record."

He'd been with the agency since 2001, and this was a nice gig -- a landscaping job that could turn permanent. It wasn't the front office, but it was a regular check.

"There are no felonies on my record," he said, smiling. Isaac didn't see the need to mention the crack pipe. Why bring up something that, according to the government, never happened?

Frenchic gathered Isaac's information, sent off a fax, and returned a few moments later. "What kind of game are you playing?" she asked. "I thought you said you didn't have any felonies."

It appeared that the charges hadn't gone away after all.

If your criminal record is otherwise unblemished or you have already served time for a conviction, you can pursue an expungement, whereby courts restrict access to arrest records and police reports of the incident. Seven different agencies are notified, including the Bureau of Criminal Identity and Investigation, the arresting police department, the prosecutor's office, the probation department, the sheriff's department, the county's regional information system, and the department of corrections.

But as Isaac would later find out, that kind of information can languish in cyberspace, regardless of government decrees. The company handling Ameritemps' checks was giving out old information.

But when Scene tried to trace what went wrong, we ran into a maze of fingerpointing and denial.

"There's no way to have answers for that," says Charlene Jones, who handles expungements for the Clerk of Courts. "We notify agencies, but we don't enforce."

Brent Bartell, head of the Clerk of Courts' criminal division, admits that he's been getting numerous complaints. But he points the finger elsewhere: "My guess is that probably whoever we're sending these entries to is not doing their job. We suspect it's BCI."

Ask the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, however, and they'll tell you it ain't so. Lonnie Rudasill says his agency's system is based solely on fingerprints. BCI doesn't do Social Security number checks, which is what 90 percent of the background services use to glean their data. And since these companies don't update their files with any regularity, their checks tend to suck, even under the best of circumstances. "There's a good chance that even after you get your record expunged, the information can still be floating around out there someplace," says Rudasill.

Still, such checks are popular among human-resource departments because they're fast and low-cost. Unfortunately, says Rudasill, they can also "end up with records that people don't have."

When Ameritemps checked up on Isaac, it was using records from Cleveland-based "We receive our information from the Common Pleas Court," says company spokeswoman Darlene Miles. "When we receive expungement information, we have up to 30 days to update our files." But the company usually makes the changes "within minutes," she says.

Isaac tells a different story.

He ended up getting the Shaker Heights job, after a court bailiff called Ameritemps to verify his story. But when he eventually quit the gig, he started applying for new jobs. That's when his problems began again.

He was sending out an average of 30 résumés a week, yet he was getting few calls. Isaac suspected Intellicorp. So he called up Miles. She told him that the information would be corrected within 24 hours.

Somehow, 24 hours turned into nearly four weeks, until Isaac finally got a letter stating that the problem had been corrected. But that may not be the end of it. "Miles told me that up to 20 of her competitors could be dispensing the same information, and there was nothing I could do about it," he says. And he'll never know, until another check is done.

Of course, there are many reasons why people don't get jobs. Ameritemps supervisor Todd Harris remembers Isaac well and doesn't exactly provide a glowing reference. He describes Isaac as a good worker, but he also calls him a "loud-mouthed troublemaker" who walked off a lucrative assignment.

Harris believes Isaac deserves to have his record righted, but he also thinks companies like his are stuck. "If we do a check and charges come up -- what can we do? It concerns us, but we put our trust in Intellicorp."

Frenchic is not so trusting. She used to work in a police records department, and she's sure this kind of thing happens often: People get overworked, and files back up. It's the nature of the government and business bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, Isaac remains unemployed. He pushes out copies of his résumé by the ream, but gets few calls. He suspects that the drug charges are popping up on other background checks, yet feels helpless to police it. He was lucky to get to the bottom of the Intellicorp goof. He doubts whether he'll be that lucky again.

"I always assumed that when you were found not guilty, you could put your life back together," he says. "But you're at the mercy of the system -- even if that system makes mistakes."

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