Frontier Communications, union battle over cable installer fired after plea

dwren@thesunnews.com dwren@thesunnews.comFebruary 28, 2014 

Frontier Communications in Myrtle Beach is waging a court battle with its employees’ union over the firing of an Internet cable installer in a case that illustrates the violation of trust that can occur whenever customers let service workers into their homes.

Frontier – which provides telecommunications services in 27 states, including the Carolinas – fired Jason Edward Cambest in 2012 after he entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor while he was on a service call. In an Alford plea, a defendant maintains his innocence but concedes that if the evidence against him were to be presented to a jury or judge, he probably would be found guilty. An Alford plea has the same effect as a guilty plea and is considered a conviction in South Carolina.

Cambest initially was charged with solicitation of a minor, which is a felony requiring registration as a sex offender. Under the reduced charge, Cambest paid a $200 fine but had no jail term or probation.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers filed a grievance on behalf of Cambest, claiming Frontier violated its collective bargaining agreement by failing to conduct its own investigation of the incident. Instead, the company relied on information from the Myrtle Beach Police Department and the Horry County Solicitor’s office in its decision to fire Cambest. The union also says extenuating circumstances caused Cambest to enter what amounts to a guilty plea to a charge he doesn’t believe he committed.

An arbitrator in November agreed with the union, ordering Frontier to rehire Cambest and pay him more than a year’s worth of back wages. Frontier this month filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to vacate the arbitrator’s award.

Carol Ervin, a lawyer representing Frontier Communications, declined to comment. Peters Wilborn, a lawyer representing the union, and Cambest could not be reached for comment.

The incident that led to the union dispute occurred on June 27, 2011, when Cambest went to a customer’s home to repair an Internet connection, according to court documents. After making repairs to the outside of the home, Cambest told the customer that he needed to enter the home to verify that the Internet was working. A mother and daughter were in the home at the time and the mother took Cambest to the room where the Internet had been installed. The mother then left the room to retrieve a laptop computer, leaving her 8-year-old daughter who was watching television.

A police report details the victim’s account, stating that the 8-year-old was sitting on a daybed with her puppy in her lap when Cambest “exposed his privates, rubbing his privates with one hand as he held his shirt up with his other hand.” The girl said Cambest did not touch her or say anything to her.

Cambest – who had no prior criminal record – was arrested on July 15, 2011, and released later that day on a $3,500 bond. He declined an opportunity to take a polygraph test. Frontier suspended Cambest without pay but continued to pay his health insurance and other benefits pending a trial. Cambest was fired after he entered the Alford plea during a Nov. 13, 2012, court hearing.

Cambest, during an interview with police after his arrest, denied that he exposed himself to the girl. Cambest “was adamant that he has numerous customers and cannot remember every service call, however he remembered with explicit detail the layout of the residence, the child’s mannerism and location during the incident as well as the entire incident and this interview was conducted approximately two weeks after the incident,” the police report states.

Cambest “stated that he did use his shirt numerous times to wipe his brow and lifted the shirt up and that he did adjust his pants several times” but did not believe he exposed himself to the girl, the report states.

Candice Lively, the senior assistant solicitor who prosecuted the case, said her agreement to let Cambest enter an Alford plea to a lesser charge was prompted by her concerns for the 8-year-old girl.

“The girl had moved past the event and if we went to trial, she was going to have to relive it,” said Lively, who now is senior resource attorney at the University of South Carolina’s Children’s Law Center. “The case would have been entirely on that child’s shoulders.”

Lively called the incident a “tough, tough case” because she would have had to prove Cambest’s intent during a trial, and it was not entirely clear that the solicitation charge would stick.

“We all felt like something inappropriate happened, but could I prove it beyond a reasonable doubt?” Lively said, adding that the reduced charge “doesn’t change the facts that something happened in that bedroom with that child.”

Cambest said in court and during his arbitration hearing that nothing happened that day. In evidence entered during the arbitrator’s hearing, Cambest said he simply agreed to the Alford plea because his lawyer told him it could take three or four years before his case came to trial. And while Cambest said he was confident of winning, he knew there was the possibility that a jury could find him guilty of the serious felony charge.

The charge was “a cloud over him and he wanted to finish the matter,” Janeen Calvert, Frontier’s human resources manager, said during the arbitrator’s hearing.

According to the arbitrator’s report, Cambest said he also failed to understand the consequences of entering an Alford plea.

Court records show the judge at the hearing told Cambest the Alford plea was “admitting guilt not because he committed the crime but rather because he was accepting a concession of the state to charge a lesser offense . . . ” Cambest said he never was told by company officials that he would lost his job if he entered such a plea.

During the arbitration hearing, the union argued that Frontier failed to prove that Cambest was a liability to the company, which was the stated reason for his termination.

Cambest “was never written up for violating company rules or regulations and he was not warned that he would be terminated if he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge,” the union stated, adding that other employees were not fired when they were found guilty of misdemeanor crimes such as traffic violations or driving under the influence.

Hoyt Wheeler, the arbitrator, agreed with the union, saying “the burden is on the company to justify its action.”

“This is a type of case that could have serious consequences for [Cambest’s] future employability and to his reputation,” Wheeler stated in his ruling.

“The company has strong grounds for discipline of employees who go into customers’ homes if they act improperly toward the members of the family, especially the children,” Wheeler stated. “However ... in the present case, in light of all the evidence, it has not been shown by clear and convincing evidence that [Cambest] committed actions that are just cause for discharge.”

Frontier, in its lawsuit, says Wheeler’s ruling is a violation of “well-established public policy of protecting children from indecent treatment by adults.” The company added that it will have no choice but to rehire Cambest unless a federal judge vacates Wheeler’s ruling.

While it doesn’t impact the charge or type of sentence, Lively said she thinks crimes committed by on-duty service workers are particularly egregious because of the violation of trust. Lively recalled another case she prosecuted in which Dish Network technician Justin Dunlap was convicted of committing a lewd act on a minor, resulting in a six-year prison sentence.

“These people are going into people’s homes, so I was concerned about that,” Lively said. “It’s not as if a total stranger did this or someone in your neighborhood who you don’t know. This is someone that you’ve brought into your home.”

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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