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EMSA Left in Dark on Employee Background Checks

TULSA, Okla. -- The names of more than 100 convicted felons match those of paramedics and medical technicians working for EMSA, yet the agency has no way to know which ones, if any, actually have criminal histories.

The Emergency Medical Services Authority relies on its private contractor, Paramedics Plus, which hires the employees, maintains the records and performs background checks. While EMSA knows the names of employees who drive its ambulances, the agency does not possess job applications, records of disciplinary actions or documents containing dates of birth, an attorney representing the agency said.

Paramedics Plus hired a medical technician with a DUI on his record last year to work in Oklahoma City, but the company's policies allow for employees with some misdemeanors to be hired, according to an email from Kris Koepsel, an attorney for EMSA. The EMT was charged with negligent homicide and fired last month after he was involved in a fatal accident while driving an EMSA ambulance.

Koepsel said applicants undergo several levels of checks before becoming paramedics or EMTs for EMSA: checks to obtain their license with the state Health Department, a background check by Paramedics Plus and a driving history check by the company's insurer.

"The Emergency Medical Services Authority takes great pride in the provision of services to the citizens of Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas, and that is demonstrated by the Emergency Medical Services Authority being recognized as one of the top EMS services in the nation," Koepsel said.

EMSA is a government agency that manages ambulance services for more than 1 million people in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and surrounding areas. The agency receives about $4.8 million a year from a monthly utility-bill fee paid by Tulsans.

The Tulsa World requested full names, dates of birth, job applications, disciplinary actions and other identifying information from EMSA on paramedics and EMTs following the Dec. 10 fatal accident in Oklahoma City. EMSA provided first and last names, hire dates and medical license numbers for 518 employees of Paramedics Plus.

The company refused to provide other information, saying its employees' information is private and not subject to the Open Records Act. The company also refused to provide ages, middle initials or partial dates of birth to the World to enable a criminal background check.

The World matched the employees' first and last names with a Department of Corrections database of convicted felons and found 109 that matched. Without dates of birth and other identifying information, there is no way to tell how many of the employees, if any, are felons. Most were common names and are likely not convicted felons, while several were unique and could be the same individuals.

Ed Shadid, an EMSA trustee and Oklahoma City city councilor, said he's concerned about the stance EMSA has taken.

"That's just one more in a litany of reasons that I feel that EMT transports should come under the auspices of the city," he said. EMSA CEO Steve Williamson said: "We have released every piece of information that was requested of us that is allowed by law. We are doing everything we can to be open and transparent."

Koepsel said EMSA's contract with Paramedics Plus does not require it to comply with the open records law. He cited a recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision regarding public employees' dates of birth as among the reasons to withhold the information. The opinion last year came after a lawsuit by the World and The Oklahoman seeking state employees' dates of birth.

The court ruling states agencies must apply a balancing test to determine whether the public's right to know or the employees' rights to privacy is more important. In that case, the court ruled the employees' right to privacy outweighed the public's interest. Koepsel said even if EMSA possessed the information on paramedics and EMTs, "the privacy interests of the private citizens employed by Paramedics Plus would outweigh the right to access."

Koepsel and the company have not directly addressed why ages, middle initials or dates of birth requested by the World could not be made available. Joey Senat, an open records advocate and journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, said government agencies should not "abdicate their responsibility" to be open by contracting with private companies. He said EMSA's stance that the Paramedics Plus employees are private may be wrong in any case.

He pointed to the definition of public bodies in the Open Records Act, which includes entities entrusted with operating public property, such as ambulances.

Paramedics Plus was aware that Benjamin Ward Samples had a misdemeanor DUI on his record when he was hired, Koepsel's email states. Samples, 36, was driving an EMSA ambulance Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City when his vehicle collided with a car making a left turn. The driver, Fidel Mesa-Solis, was killed. Samples has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor negligent homicide.

The Oklahoman reported that police and court records indicate Samples was driving left of center and traveling 83 mph in a 40 mph zone when the accident occurred. During emergency calls, ambulance drivers can only travel 10 mph over the speed limit, provided there is no danger to lives or property, according to EMSA policy.

Records show Samples pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol, changing lanes unsafely, speeding and transporting an open container in 2003. Samples was also charged with a felony -- possession of an altered driver's license -- in Oklahoma County in 1996. A warrant for his arrest was outstanding for six years until his arrest on the DUI charge in 2002, court records show.

"There was nothing in this individual's background that prohibited him from ... obtaining employment with Paramedics Plus," Koepsel's email states. Paramedics Plus' hiring policy states applicants must have a clear motor vehicle and criminal record before being hired. Under a list of reasons that employees would be ineligible to drive ambulances, EMSA policy includes any driver convicted of "any alcohol or drug-related offenses, including but not limited to driving while under the influence of alcohol."

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