A readjustment for Phila.'s ex-offenders program

Posted: September 15, 2008

Mayor Nutter has made a priority of trying to persuade Philadelphia's business leaders to hire ex-convicts as part of his plan to make the city safer.

Now, having done so himself, the mayor has discovered there can be pitfalls.

Six months after appointing an ex-inmate and former drug addict with a record for aggravated assault to lead a city office devoted to finding jobs for other ex-offenders, Nutter quietly demoted him.

During his brief tenure as director of the Mayor's Office for the Reentry of Ex-offenders, Ronald L. Cuie nearly doubled his staff and overspent his budget to the point where the city has had to cancel a contract with a firm hired to find jobs for ex-inmates.

Last month, Cuie, 54, was reassigned to another position in the same office, at the same $87,500-a-year salary, but with no supervisory duties.

Asked last week about the decision to terminate the high-profile appointment, Nutter said little.

"Needs and strategies change and evolve over time, and you utilize your personnel as best you see fit," he said.

For his part, Cuie - who still owes $91,000 in restitution and is on probation for 52 more years - said he did the job he was asked to do. "This isn't about Mike Nutter making a bad decision in hiring an ex-offender."

In many ways, Cuie might have seemed a natural pick for the job and as Nutter's hoped-for example for the reentry program.

Articulate and charismatic, Cuie had a record of successful public service before his trouble with the law, having served in senior positions under former Mayors W. Wilson Goode Sr. and Ed Rendell.

But he had a much darker side as well, one that led to a dramatic fall from grace fueled by addictions to cocaine and alcohol.

In August 1999, he spent a weekend drinking and doing cocaine with a male companion, Nathaniel Tilghman, and two women. When his funds ran out, Cuie left, only to return later to demand money from Tilghman.

He bound Tilghman with duct tape and beat him, breaking his jaw. To get Tilghman to surrender his personal identification number for his Visa card, Cuie repeatedly gouged his face with a knife, threatening to cut out his eye.

In 2000, Cuie was convicted of aggravated assault, robbery and criminal conspiracy.

While in prison and since his release in 2003, Cuie devoted himself to helping former prisoners re-adapt to society.

He worked with St. Joseph's University and others to develop reentry programs, and served on Nutter's mayoral transition committee for reentry issues.

When the position came up for director of the reentry office, Cuie applied.

"All of the committee were impressed with him, his passion, his understanding of the issue and his ability to communicate it to us," said Goode, who sat on a panel that recommended Cuie.

Cuie was hired with great fanfare last February to run the office, which had a $2.6 million budget and was created in 2005 by former Mayor John F. Street.

His story was compelling for Nutter, who believes that finding jobs for ex-offenders is a key to cutting the recidivism rate and lowering the city's crime rate.

To that end, Nutter backed legislation that gives a $10,000 tax credit to businesses that hire ex-offenders.

Once in his new job, Cuie fired about a half dozen employees, replacing them with his own, including at least two other ex-offenders. Eventually, the office grew from about 16 employees to "29 or 30," according to Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety.

Cuie says he made the changes because he found the office in disarray. As a result of the new hires, however, Cuie overspent his budget in less than six months by at least $156,000.

Along the way, other bills were being ignored.

One was a $705,000 contract with Impact Services Corp., a firm hired to provide social services and job placement to ex-offenders.

Ray Jones, a director at Impact, said when Cuie began just $40,000 of that contract had been paid by the city.

In late May, Impact received a letter terminating its contract, which did not expire until June 30. On track to fulfill its commitment, Impact had by then found jobs for 420 ex-offenders.

"There was hiring done beyond what the budget could support," Gillison said, "so we had to end a contract short to make up the deficit."

Impact has since received most of its money. But as Jones saw it: "Somebody dropped the ball in terms of monitoring what was going on in that office."

Gillison said the office was undergoing a reorganization that ended only recently. "We figured out now where we're going," he said 10 days ago.

Regarding Cuie's new hires, Gillison said there was "probably a misunderstanding" in that they began work before the reorganization was finalized.

On Aug. 29, eight of those employees were dismissed - about two weeks after Cuie himself was reassigned. For now, chief of staff Carolyn Harper is running the office.

In his new position as a special assistant to Gillison, Cuie is driving efforts to start reentry work with prisoners as soon as they are sentenced, rather than the current practice of waiting until their release date is scheduled.

"My passion is inside the [prison] walls," Cuie said. "I'm as happy as I can be. I'm grateful to have this opportunity."

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.


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