Without a deal, APF delays jail job fair

Hilton’s candidate to run Hardin prison also has criminal past
2009-10-07T18:00:00Z Without a deal, APF delays jail job fairED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 07, 2009 6:00 pm  • 

A job fair scheduled for next week by the prospective operators of the Hardin jail has been postponed, but 400 to 500 high school students are still scheduled to dine at the jail later this month.

Becky Shay, the spokeswoman for American Police Force in Hardin, said the two-day job fair has been postponed because contract talks with the city's economic development agency were derailed by the resignation of the agency's attorney.

"We want to make sure we have jobs to hire for," Shay said.

APF is hoping to reschedule that event, but a banquet for several hundred members of the Montana Association of Student Councils, meeting for their state convention in Hardin on Oct. 19-21, is still scheduled in the empty jail on Oct. 20.

Mitch Evans, the student council adviser at Hardin High School, said the banquet was arranged early in 2009, long before APF rolled into town. He said Two Rivers Authority, the tax-funded economic development agency that built the jail, offered to host the banquet.

Evans said organizers thought it would be instructive for students to dine there and to tour the empty jail as a way of reinforcing the idea that this is not where any of them would want to end up.

"It was also more of a novelty," he said. "That was the reasoning behind it."

Once APF came into the picture, he said, the company was hoping to have employees on hand who could cook the meal in the jail's kitchen as a way of breaking in the staff and the facility.

Because the only local hire has been Shay, whose office is in the jail, "I don't see that happening now," Evans said. There is still a possibility that the kitchen will be used for the banquet, but the event is more likely to be catered, he said.

Two Rivers Authority signed a preliminary contract with APF last month, but when the Two Rivers board met Monday to talk about an updated contract, it voted to postpone further negotiations until it retained the services of a new lawyer.

Former Hardin City Attorney Becky Convery, who was hired by Two Rivers early in September to draw up the contract with APF, announced last week that she was quitting that job because it conflicted with work she was still doing for the city.

Al Peterson, vice president of the Two Rivers board, said the board already asked Billings attorney Harlan Krogh if he was interested in assisting the agency. Krogh declined, Peterson said, because he also does some work for the city of Hardin, but he offered to help Two Rivers find someone else.

Whoever is hired, Peterson said, would work "very part time" on a contract basis, as Convery did. Two Rivers is, however, looking for a full-time director, following the resignation of Greg Smith.

Smith had been placed on paid administrative leave in mid-September for reasons that were never disclosed. His resignation letter, accepted by the Two Rivers board Monday night, contained only such vague statements such as "I feel it is time that I take my career path to other venues."

Meanwhile, Shay was alerting members of the media Wednesday about the criminal past of Michael Cohen, who had been named by APF founder Michael Hilton as the man he had hired to run the prison and military training center that APF supposedly was going to open in Hardin.

"I realize APF doesn't look good, and APF may never look good," Shay said, but Cohen "has his own history."

TRA board member Bob Crane caused a stir at the Monday meeting when he disclosed that he had called Cohen, a private security contractor in Ohio, and was told that Cohen had never agreed to work for APF, much less signed a contract.

Cohen was working for the Secret Service, supervising the agency's Philadelphia fraud squad, when he was accused of stealing $2,800 in the course of seizing assets in two different Secret Service investigations.

He was eventually found guilty of theft and other charges and sentenced to 33 months in prison. He ended up serving a little more than 14 months, according to The Associated Press.

On Wednesday, Shay released an e-mail from Cohen to Hilton, dated Sept. 21, 2009, in which Cohen disclosed his theft conviction, though not his prison term, and said he was still interested in "a position with your company."

Shay said the e-mail shows that Cohen, contrary to earlier statements he made to The Gazette, did not sever ties to APF and was still interested in a job.

"Frankly, my understanding was that he was hired and he was coming to town," Shay said.

Cohen said the e-mail shows only that he did not try to hide his past and that Hilton never even mentioned a specific job with APF. He said he was interested in being an international security training consultant, and didn't know until he was contacted by Crane, the Two Rivers board member, that he was being touted by Hilton as his operations director at the Hardin jail.

"He never gave me any specifics," Cohen said, and "I've had no affiliation with this guy."

Peterson confirmed Wednesday that Hilton presented the board only with Cohen's resume - which Cohen sent to Hilton along with an employment application - and not an employment contract.

As for Hilton's own criminal background - which includes convictions for theft and fraud and time in prison - Shay said Hilton disclosed all of it to her before she left her job as a Gazette reporter and went to work for Hilton.

She said press accounts of Hilton's lengthy criminal history and two bankruptcy proceedings included only one small detail that was new to her. She also said Hilton disclosed the same information to Peterson.

Peterson confirmed that, saying Hilton came clean on his record about a week after Peterson and other Two Rivers representatives returned from a California meeting with Hilton in early September. Peterson said he thought Hilton was going to publicly disclose his criminal background when he made his first public appearance in Hardin in mid-September, but he failed to do so. Peterson said he didn't know why.

Even without the job fair next week, Shay said, Hilton is planning to come back to Hardin soon and was still making travel arrangements on Wednesday. Among other things, she said, Hilton still has two real estate transactions to complete - the purchase of one house in Hardin for Shay and one for him.

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