Ousted Shuman director defends his work record

William T. "Jack" Simmons, to put it one way, is between jobs.

It has its good parts. The former director of the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center now has time to visit his grandchildren in Florida, to check in with relatives in South Carolina. As of late, he has become even more involved at his church, Grace Memorial Presbyterian in the Hill District, where everyone greets him by name.

But at the end of the day, he can't get around it: He was fired.

Once the head of a 130-bed facility that cares for, educates and confines Allegheny County children facing criminal charges, Mr. Simmons was summarily dismissed over the summer by county officials amid accusations of mismanagement and a crackdown from the state.

Mr. Simmons, 63, has heard allegations that he promoted his friends, that his staff took gifts meant for children -- even that Shuman residents washed his car and shined his shoes.

Not true, he says. And after months of staying silent, the former administrator spoke out recently against his firing, defending a record of service he believes has been unfairly besmirched.

"They went to great length to damage my reputation," he said recently at his church. "They made it almost impossible for me to get another job. Who wants you?

"I hope the county would recognize what they did was wrong."

A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's law school and a former City Court magistrate, Mr. Simmons got plenty of fanfare when he was hired as director of Shuman in 2007. Many hoped Mr. Simmons would turn around the troubled Lincoln-Lemington facility, which had racked up a long list of violations with the state Department of Public Welfare.

He got to work quickly, breaking habits he felt hurt staff productivity -- unprofessional clothing, long lunch breaks, lax standards. It didn't take right away: After his first year, state regulators knocked Shuman down to a provisional license, citing 28 violations by Mr. Simmons' count.

But 18 months later, they found no problems, a point of pride for him.

"I told my staff, it wasn't me -- it was them," he said. "We made a lot of changes."

Nonetheless, Mr. Simmons became deeply unpopular among some staff members, who are mostly represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 668. Several threatened grievances and whistle-blower lawsuits, accusing managers of retaliating after they pointed out problems at Shuman. Some fired employees got their jobs back, including eight workers dismissed in 2009 amid accusations of falsifying records.

But the coup de grace came in July 2012. An SEIU petition signed by more than 70 Shuman workers landed on the desk of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, accusing Mr. Simmons of playing favorites with promotions, misusing center money and giving lighter discipline to friends.

County manager William McKain met with Mr. Simmons in September 2012 to discuss the allegations. He and the rest of the Fitzgerald administration declined comment for this story, citing pending litigation between the county and Mr. Simmons.

In the meeting, Mr. McKain reportedly stepped gingerly around one accusation, saying he was embarrassed to read it out loud. Did you, he asked Mr. Simmons, ever have a resident shine your shoes, wash your car or serve you meals?

No, the director responded. He couldn't believe it.

He went further in a letter sent after the meeting: "I was offended, felt humiliated and disrespected by the thought of being asked [that question]," he wrote in a Sept. 17 memo to Mr. McKain.

The next bombshell broke in January, when a Shuman guard allegedly shoved a teenage resident into a door frame, knocking him down. Though the incident was caught on tape, it wasn't reviewed or reported by a supervisor until several days later.

State inspectors would later cite the center for the delay. Mr. Simmons maintains there was no neglect -- both the guard, Ronald White, and the resident originally said it was an accident, and supervisors took them at their word until they saw the video.

Mr. White was charged with child endangerment and is awaiting trial, though state regulators later found no evidence of persistent child abuse.

Alarm bells went off in Mr. Fitzgerald's office. Though Mr. Simmons had suspended Mr. White for five days, taking into account the man's long service record, Mr. McKain disagreed and fired the guard, Mr. Simmons said.

What's more, Mr. McKain also suspended Mr. Simmons and deputy director Lynette Drawn-Williamson, saying they failed to conduct a proper investigation into the incident.

When Mr. Simmons pressed further, Mr. McKain said he didn't agree with Mr. White's original punishment, the former director says.

"In all my years of working, I have never received any form or level of discipline," the director later wrote to Mr. McKain in a March 15 letter. "Even though I did not do anything wrong, I am still disciplined because you disagree with the discipline I imposed. I would like to think that even in this administration there is room for disagreement without the fear of discipline."

In March, Mr. McKain released a report sharply critical of Shuman. Managers were hiring part-timers without the county human resources department's approval, he wrote; a charity fund for Shuman residents was kept off the county's books; building guards reported to Mr. Simmons, not the county police.

"There's a disconnect between staff and management," Mr. McKain said in an interview with reporters in April. "Effective leadership has to be above the fray. That's why I'm stepping in."

Mr. Simmons said he submitted his own response to the administration's report in April, rebutting several claims and acknowledging he'd do better on others. It was never posted publicly.

In April, state regulators bumped Shuman down to a provisional license, citing the January incident and the lack of progress made on training staff. Mr. Simmons said he made a clerical mistake in setting the date for the training to be completed, an excuse regulators didn't accept.

That was enough for Mr. Fitzgerald. In July, he summoned Mr. Simmons and Ms. Drawn-Williamson to the courthouse. Pulling the director into his office, he flatly offered him a choice: Resign or be fired.

The director chose to be fired.

"I didn't do anything wrong," he said Tuesday. "If I resign, they can always hold up my resignation and say, 'He resigned! We didn't do anything wrong!'

"No matter what I do in the future, my integrity has to be intact."

Ms. Drawn-Williamson resigned. The administration appointed former acting Allegheny County Jail head William S. Stickman III to replace Mr. Simmons temporarily; the county is still looking for a permanent director.

Since the summer, state regulators have restored Shuman's full license. While still seeing lower occupancy rates -- more kids are being placed in alternative housing and other arrangements than ever before -- the center has recently seen some improvements, with a new coat of paint in some areas and new uniforms for residents.

The same can't be said for Mr. Simmons. His dismissal has made getting interviews difficult.

He's also filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which investigates workplace discrimination. EEOC filings are secret, and both the county and Mr. Simmons declined to comment on his.

"I hope we can come to an amicable resolution to this where I'm satisfied and they're satisfied," Mr. Simmons said. "With this hanging over my head, it almost amounts to character assassination."

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.

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