State representative Jere Hargrove has joined District Attorney Bill Gibson on the list of politicians who use the specter of child molestation to draw attention to themselves. But in so doing, Hargrove has either saddled the state's honest taxpayers with a cost that could have been charged to the area's criminals or provided another indication that Bill Gibson has misused his Economic Crime Fund.
Hargrove did this by selecting a private company, Child Lures, to provide a product for the Putnam County school system without evaluating alternate programs or products, or even soliciting competitive bids. Also, Hargrove has described his actions in a manner could mislead some.
In his June 21 Herald-Citizen column, Hargrove bragged that he, along with state senator Tommy Burks, "was able to secure $4000 for implementation of the Child Lures program in Putnam County schools."
Child Lures is a program intended to train children to protect themselves from abduction and sexual exploitation. Materials for the program are provided by Child Lures Ltd., a for-profit company in Shelburne, Vermont. The Child Lures School Program consists of a presenter's video, a presenter's instruction guide, a student video, and 25 copies of the Child Lures Family Guide. The package costs $350 per school. Schools are encouraged to provide each student with a copy of the Family Guide for an extra 90 cents a pop.
While campaigning prior to the Democratic primary, DA Gibson pledged to give up "yard signs," in order to purchase the Child Lures School Program. "Instead of putting out political road signs and yard signs," Gibson promised in a newspaper advertisement, "I am donating that money toward the purchase of the Child Lures School Safety Program, to protect our children from abduction and sexual abuse."
Gibson never explained the logic (or lack of it) behind buying newspaper ads in order to tell people that he won't be buying yard signs. He also did not explain how one goes about "donating" to a for-profit corporation, or how much he had paid to Child Lures.
But a Putnam Pit investigation revealed that Child Lures materials purchased by Gibson prior to the election were paid for through the 13th Judicial District's Economic Crime Fund, rather than with Gibson's own money.
Now Jere Hargrove has jumped on the Child Lures bandwagon. "During this past legislative session," Hargrove trumpets in his Herald-Citizen column, "I sponsored a resolution to provide funding for a nationally recognized program that would provide parents, children and the community-at-large with the tools to protect themselves from abductors . . . We are fortunate to be able to bring such a worthwhile program to Putnam County and the State of Tennessee."
Putnam County's students certainly need to be trained to spot abductors and molesters, especially since their teachers are among the potential molesters. But Hargrove isn't content to merely provide for the training's funding. Like DA Bill Gibson, he must also publicly pat himself on the back, taking personal credit for keeping our children safe.
If you ask me, a public official who uses the child molestation issue for political gain has about 43 cards in his deck. And two of them are jokers.
In the opinion of Michael Knowlton, one of Gibson's opponents in the upcoming DA election, Gibson's actions are deceitful and illegal. "It takes a sick individual to use kids for political gain," Knowlton told The Putnam Pit.
But when Hargrove takes credit for the $4,000 state grant, he also assumes the responsibility for forcing honest taxpayers to pay for a program that, according to District Attorney Gibson, could be funded by the 13th Judicial District's criminals.
The 13th Judicial District's Economic Crime Fund, which Gibson used to purchase Child Lures materials, is funded by fines assessed against people convicted of "economic" crimes such as bank fraud, forgery, and writing bad checks. The fund is intended to be used by the District Attorney to fight economic crimes - such as bank fraud, forgery, and writing bad checks. The criminals, rather than the honest taxpayers, pay for the fight against economic crime.
By using the Economic Crime Fund to purchase Child Lures materials, DA Gibson has, in effect, defined child molestation and abduction as an economic crime. If it ISN'T an economic crime, then Gibson has violated the law by misusing the Economic Crime Fund. If it IS an economic crime, then Rep. Hargrove has forced the honest taxpayers to pay for a program that could have been paid for by the criminal element.
When asked about this apparent conflict, Hargrove replied by e-mail, "I would anticipate that this appropriation would complement any existing programs coordinated by the District Attorney General of the 13th Judicial District."
The Pit later requested that Hargrove "ask the attorney general for an opinion on whether it is legal to use economic crime funds to stop sexual assaults." Hargrove has not replied to that request.
The $4,000 grant sponsored by Hargrove has a large string attached: It can only be used to purchase materials from Child Lures Ltd. It cannot be used to purchase materials from any other vendor. The school system is not allowed to solicit competitive bids from other companies or organizations. The school system is not allowed to evaluate other programs or to choose the program that best fits the needs of the individual school.
According to Hargrove, "I would not think that the Putnam County School System would be forced to spend the $4,000, but the budget legislation does require that, if the $4000 is used at all, it must go toward implementation of a Child Lures Pilot Program in the Putnam County School System."
Child Lures Ltd. was chosen - by Hargrove - as the program provider without utilizing a competitive bidding process. In two separate e-mail messages, Hargrove was asked, "From what organizations were bids obtained, and what was the basis for awarding the contract to Child Lures?" Hargrove has not provided an answer.
In his Herald-Citizen column, Hargrove conveyed the impression that he had studied or evaluated other programs prior to sponsoring the Child Lures appropriation. "The Child Lures Community Plan is the most comprehensive approach to preventing sexual abuse and abduction available today . . . . Child Lures is the most comprehensive program I have seen to prevent abduction and sexual exploitation of our young ones."
Apparently, Child Lures is the ONLY program that Hargrove has seen. When asked what programs, other than Child Lures, he had reviewed, Hargrove replied, "There may be other programs of which I am unaware [that are] similar to the Child Lures program that I witnessed firsthand in Putnam County. But from what I have seen, it is my belief that the Child Lures Community Plan is the most comprehensive approach to preventing sexual abuse and abduction available today. I would welcome any additional information regarding other programs that educate a community about the dangers posed by sex offenders."
I spent an hour searching the Internet, and found many of programs that appear to be similar to Child Lures. Two non-profit organizations, United Care USA and Kids Sake, appeared to offer the "comprehensive" programs desired by Rep. Hargrove.
A third program, Nest Entertainment's "Yello Dyno," was commercial to the point of weirdness. Yello Dyno (the program is named for a big yellow dinosaur) offers franchises starting at $15,000. The sales pitch aimed at the potential franchisee features blurbs like...
Referring to the Yello Dyno's Safety Party: "Schools, day cares and parents are more than willing to pay because the cost per child is minimal ($3 to $5). Your overhead is low and with up to 30 children per class, gross profit is tremendous. It's a great value! It's also a great business! "
Referring to the Parent-Teacher Workshops: "Schools pay fees ranging from $75 to $225. Plus products sales at the workshops to parents are highly profitable. So far the highest sale of products to parents has been $2700. That's for a one hour presentation! We look forward to you topping that!
Referring to the Immediate Response ID Program: "When you offer this program in conjunction with the other programs, the recognition drives product revenue sky high."
Hey! Since Bill Gibson cares so much about children, maybe he should buy himself a Yello Dyno franchise! He wouldn't even need to use his own money. He could buy it with the money in his Economic Crime Fund! After all, child abduction is an economic crime, right Bill?
It may be too late to help the Putnam County schools decide how to spend their $4000 grant, but as a service to the public, we present Child Protection Resources, a summary of several non-profit and for-profit organizations (other than Child Lures) that offer products and services intended to train children to protect themselves from abduction and sexual exploitation.