Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TOP STORY >> Conviction forces out city department chief

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville Parks and Recreation director George Biggs resigned Tuesday after city officials learned that he is a convicted felon and had an extra-marital affair during work hours in the last 18 months.

“All I can say is that Mr. Biggs has tendered his resignation as parks department director,” Mayor Tommy Swaim said Tuesday, following an investigation of allegations that Biggs had served prison time in the early 1990s for killing a man in Texarkana, Texas.

On June 21, 1991, a jury found Biggs guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of a man he believed was romantically involved with his wife, from whom he was separated. Biggs was 29.

He was sentenced to five years in the Texas Department of Corrections and fined $10,000. He served less than six months in prison and completed the remainder of his sentence on parole.

Biggs was hired in early 1995 by the city of Jacksonville to work in the Parks and Recreation Department. In late 1998, he was promoted to head the department. At the time, conducting background checks on prospective city employees was not a routine personnel practice.

According to the Texarkana, Texas, police report dated July 3, 1990, Biggs was charged with murder in the shooting of Bernard Walker. Biggs told police that he got into an argument with Walker in the parking lot of the apartment building where Biggs’ estranged wife lived.

Biggs had come to her apartment that day and saw Walker leave the apartment. According to Biggs, Walker threatened him with a six-inch knife, then got in his car.

Biggs then went to his vehicle, got a pistol, and then “got in a scuffle” through the window of Walker’s vehicle, causing the gun to discharge three times, Biggs told police. Several eyewitnesses said that they saw Biggs point and fire the gun into the car window. Walker died later at the hospital.

This Monday, Mayor Swaim received a copy of the arrest report and began an investigation to verify information about the arrest and outcome of the case. By mid-day Tuesday, Swaim had obtained enough information to confront Biggs about his past.

“The information was a shock to me,” Swaim told The Leader earlier in the day. “We are going to deal with this as expeditiously as possible.”

City officials were tipped off about Biggs’ past by a former Little Rock police officer and the mother of a woman who claims to have had an affair with Biggs, which started in 2007 and ended just over two months ago.

Tamara Ponomareff said she decided to come forward with the information after her daughter, who wishes to remain anonymous, told her that Biggs had divulged that he killed a man accidentally. With that, Ponomareff decided to seek out more information from the Texarkana police.

“I mean, how is it possible to accidentally shoot someone? How do you do that accidentally? You want to know the details,” Ponomareff said. “I verified everything. Then I became really concerned.”

Ponomareff said that the last straw was witnessing Biggs shove her daughter to the ground in front of the Jacksonville Community Center during an argument on Feb. 3. She says she went to Swaim because she felt that Biggs was unsuited for the job as director of parks and recreation.

“I feel like, in my heart, that he (Biggs) should not be involved with children, if he has a temper like that,” Ponomareff said.

Ponomareff said that the meeting with Swaim and city administrator Jay Whisker “went very well” and that both “were quite astonished. Their eyes popped out of their heads” as she talked about Biggs.

Swaim told The Leader Tuesday that he had little direct contact with Biggs on the job prior to his promotion to director of parks and recreation in 1998. After that, Biggs attended department head meetings chaired by Swaim.

“His performance has been good,” Swaim said. “George has done a good job and has managed his department well. I am confident nobody has been put in danger, but am disappointed in the circumstances.”

According to Ponomareff’s daughter, she and Biggs met in 2007 at a North Little Rock gym where she was employed and he came to work out. She says Biggs, for the first months they dated, led her to believe he was single, and then admitted to being married.

She said he gave her an engagement ring, insisted that his marriage was one of convenience – “like roommates” – and that he wanted a divorce so that he could spend the rest of his life with her. His promises and assurances of a future life together finally gave way to suspicions that he was also involved with other women. The relationship ended on Jan. 31.

Biggs has been active in Jacksonville community affairs, including service as president of the board of directors of the recently founded Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School, the city’s first charter school. He also serves as a church deacon.

According to Jill Ross, the city’s human resources director, it is against city policy to hire anyone convicted of a violent crime to work in a position involving contact with children. It is city policy to conduct national background and sex- offender registry checks, as well as drug screenings, on all prospective employees. Background checks on temporary workers are left to the employment agency that does the hiring for the city.

In light of what has happened, retroactive background checks on employees hired prior to implementation of the background checks might be “something we’ll have to look into,” Ross said.