Agency: Sex Offender Used State Job to 'Groom' Potential Victims

By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press, carried in Duluth News Tribune
August 16, 2006

Madison, Wis. - A former Episcopalian pastor and convicted sex offender was fired for using his position as an employment specialist with the Department of Workforce Development to develop personal relationships with several troubled young men, state records show.

William J. Smith's behavior fit the concept of "grooming," in which sex offenders gain potential victims' trust to reduce their resistance to sexual contact, DWD officials said in a confidential May 17 letter in which they explained their decision to fire Smith.

Details of the case surfaced Wednesday as part of a discrimination complaint Smith filed with the state's Equal Rights Division protesting his firing. In an interview, Smith denied any wrongdoing while employed at the agency.

Smith, 55, who was convicted in 1989 of two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a 15-year-old altar boy, was allowed to work at the Jefferson County jobs center for the agency from June 2004 until May despite his criminal record.

Department of Workforce Development spokeswoman Rose Lynch acknowledged Wednesday the department did not conduct a background check or even bother to check the state-run sex offender registry before hiring Smith.

Lynch said such checks were not required for Smith's employment specialist position, in which he worked with job seekers and employers, but the agency was reviewing its policies in the wake of the case.

"We definitely take these matters very seriously," she said. "Protecting the public is foremost."

Smith was fired after an investigation discovered he had used his position to obtain highly sensitive and personal medical and legal information on clients while cultivating relationships with young men, many of whom had disabilities, according to the May 17 letter.

"This is part of a pattern you exhibited in your criminal history of becoming personally involved in the lives of vulnerable people and then victimizing them," DWD officials wrote in firing Smith.

Smith was pastor of a church in Sturgeon Bay when he was convicted in 1989 of sexually assaulting an altar boy with a learning disability whom he was counseling. Additional counts of sexual exploitation of children were read into the record at the time.

The agency's letter said Smith's efforts to serve as a mentor and personal adviser to clients seeking job training "replicates your previous inappropriate counseling activities as a priest with vulnerable clients."

The letter, signed by deputy secretary Micabil Diaz-Martinez and division administrator Bill Clingan, cited "compelling evidence that your behavior violates the public trust and safety." They did not accuse him of any sexual misconduct in the letter.

The agency launched its investigation after Smith was charged in March with violating the state's sex offender registry law for failing to notify the state when he moved from Milwaukee to Fort Atkinson. The Department of Corrections had lost track of him even though he was working for state government at the time. Smith has asked for the charge to be dismissed.

DWD reassigned Smith to its Madison office in late April after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that he was operating a church out of his home despite his criminal background. He was fired May 17.

The agency's letter to Smith said he obtained or tried to obtain confidential medical, psychological or legal information unrelated to job placement on at least 11 individuals. It also cited numerous examples of him mishandling confidential information.

He allowed clients to call him terms of endearment such as "Pops" and "Poppa," the letter said, and to call him outside of work hours and at home.

"All of these actions taken as a whole are part of a pattern of engaging in grooming behaviors while neglecting job duties," DWD officials wrote.

The letter acknowledged that Smith was not closely supervised during his two years as an employment and training specialist. He spent up to two hours per day surfing the Internet, often promoting his church, it said, and a search of his computer turned up pictures of young men.

Smith's complaint, dated Aug. 7, alleges his firing was discrimination based on his criminal record, his being gay and his religion.

"They terminated me for discrimination purposes," he said in the interview. "It was a political move ... It was precipitated by someone who didn't think a sex offender should have a job with the state."

Smith said he had worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a variety of jobs since 1992, after he served three years in prison for the conviction. He said DWD officials never inquired about his background when he was hired in 2004.

"It was nothing that they ever asked - either in the interview or at any other time," he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.