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Lawmakers to overhaul intern rules after sex offender hired

 

West Virginia lawmakers plan to overhaul hiring rules for paid interns after the House of Delegates employed a registered sex offender during this year’s legislative session.

The Legislature did not conduct a background check on Alexander Phillip Collins, a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to downloading and sharing child porn in 2013, even though Collins signed a release authorizing the Legislature to search his arrest record, according to legislative officials.

Collins, 23, worked as a $1,400-a-month paid intern for the House Education Committee this year. The Legislature doesn’t typically conduct background checks on interns and part-time legislative session employees.

Starting this fall, interns likely will be required to disclose any felony or misdemeanor arrests on their application form, said Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, who heads the Legislative Intern Committee.

A legislative staff member also will run applicants’ names through the West Virginia sex offender registry, Westfall said. Legislative staff now only check interns’ social media accounts.

“We are going to redo the application,” Westfall said. “We are in the process of changing this.”

House Democrats said the screenings should include a comprehensive FBI background check.

“Anytime you’re going to be around children, with the page program and so forth, we need to do everything we can to protect students and kids,” said Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, who serves on the House Education Committee. “It’s about protecting the integrity of the system. We have security checks to get into the Capitol, don’t we?”

The Intern Committee, which includes four senators, five delegates and six citizen members, hired Collins in early January and abruptly fired him the week before the legislative session ended on March 12, payroll records show.

“As soon as House leadership found out about the individual’s history, we notified the Intern Committee, which promptly called a meeting,” said Jared Hunt, a House spokesman. “[He] was fired that day and received final compensation in the amount required by law.”

After his dismissal, the Legislature continued to pay Collins. Last Friday, Collins received a $2,100 check that paid him through April 15, the usual end date for legislative interns, even though Collins already had been sent home weeks earlier.

“The individual had completed the hours required by their university to complete the internship,” Hunt said. “The amount to be paid the intern was related to the completion of the internship.”

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, refused to comment, referring questions to House lawyers.

“I’m really not at liberty to discuss any personnel issues or confirm or deny the information you have,” Espinosa said.

Perry said Espinosa initially told House Education Committee members that Collins left because he had finished his internship work, and then later asserted that Collins departed because of “family problems.”

“You’ve got a cover-up,” Perry said. “I asked questions and got multiple answers. Now, we know those answers were bunk.”

In 2010, Collins was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, after the West Virginia State Police raided his Lincoln County home, seized his computer and external hard drives, and found “hundreds, if not thousands” of videos and photos of “pre-pubescent” boys having sex with other boys and adult males, according to a criminal complaint.

Collins, who was living with his mother at the time, served three days in prison before being released on bail. In 2013, he was sentenced to three years of probation and given 50 years of extended supervision. He also was fined $500, registered as a sex offender and ordered to undergo sex offender therapy.

Collins’ probation was later reduced to two years for good behavior. He was released from probation on Dec. 8, 2015, three weeks before he started working for the House.

In late November, the House awarded Collins, a graduate student at Marshall University, the Legislature’s most prestigious internship, naming him a Robert W. Burk Jr. Student Intern. Former state Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, headed the legislative subcommittee that interviewed Burk internship applicants.

Collins was paid $5,600 during his brief stint at the Legislature.

During the session, he presented at least one bill — legislation that loosened a requirement that school systems provide at least 180 days of instruction — to state lawmakers who serve on the House Education Committee. Collins also had privileges to be on the House chamber floor during votes.

A West Virginia Democratic Party official blasted House leaders for keeping a lid on the reason for Collins’ abrupt departure.

“I am appalled that [House] Speaker Tim Armstead and Chairman Espinosa failed to notify the public, and the families of the children paging at the Capitol, that a registered sex offender managed to get hired to work with the House Education Committee this year,” said Chris Regan, vice chairman of the Democratic Party. “When something like that is discovered, transparency is mandatory, as is communicating with parents. Apparently good public relations took priority over the safety of the pages, and that is a disgrace.”

Hunt said volunteer pages are never left alone at the Capitol.

“The individual in question did not have any direct or unsupervised contact with pages and was terminated almost immediately after concerns were raised,” he said.

Legislative staff also searched Collins’ computer at the Capitol after he was dismissed, Hunt said. “It was found to be free of any inappropriate material,” he said.

During this year’s legislative session, the House Education Committee passed a bill that increased penalties for teachers who commit sexual offenses. The full House voted 99-0 to approve the measure, but the Senate did not take up the legislation.

Collins could not be reached for comment. The phone number listed in his criminal file at the Lincoln County Courthouse has been disconnected.

Hunt said the intern hiring rules were established years ago while Democrats controlled the Legislature. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers serve on the Intern Committee. The panel’s meetings are announced publicly in the Senate and House chambers.

A House Speaker’s Office lawyer notified House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, about Collins’ dismissal shortly after it happened.

This year’s legislative session wasn’t the first time Collins worked at the state Capitol.

In 2012, the Legislature awarded Collins a weeklong unpaid internship. As a Frasure-Singleton intern, Collins was assigned to assist former state Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, records show. The internship came two years after Collins’ arrest and a year before his sentencing and conviction.

Former Delegate Scott Varner, D-Marshall, headed the Intern Committee at the time.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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