Crime and Courts: Reporter under fire for playing up bus driver's prostitution past

2012-07-06T12:00:00Z 2013-10-28T11:20:45Z Crime and Courts: Reporter under fire for playing up bus driver's prostitution pastSTEVEN ELBOW | The Capital Times | selbow@madison.com madison.com

Earlier this year, Melissa Dumas was at work driving a Milwaukee school bus when, while stopped in a parking lot, she was confronted by WTMJ-TV reporter Robert Koebel about her past.

“You are a school bus driver, we did a background check on you and we found you were arrested for prostitution,” Koebel told her while the TV camera rolled.

“Are you kidding me?” she replied.

“No joke,” he intoned to viewers (see the news clip here). “We caught a convicted prostitute driving bus number 1081.”

Dumas has a misdemeanor conviction for prostitution from 2005.

Dumas lost her job, and now she’s suing Koebel in Milwaukee County Circuit Court for invading her privacy with “ambush journalism.”

Koebel also reported that Dumas, now 34, was cited for drugs in 2001 while driving her sister’s car -- a half-burned joint was in the car, which she denied any knowledge of -- and driving with a suspended license. In addition, Dumas was in a minor school bus accident in 2009 and was cited for inattentive driving, although no kids were onboard.

But Koebel didn’t focus too much on Dumas’ driving offenses. Nor did he spend much time reporting on another bus driver who was arrested last December for driving the wrong way on a Milwaukee street with a loaded gun in his pocket and an empty bottle of hydrocodone next to him.

Instead, he focused the report almost entirely on Dumas’ 2005 prostitution conviction.

“Prostitution is sexy, right?” says Donna Hietpas, program director at the Women’s Harm Reduction Program at the Benedict Center in Milwaukee. “And it gets people to watch. And unfortunately people do not realize how amazingly hard and sad it is for the women who find themselves involved in that. And that scarlet A follows them forever no matter what they’re trying to do.”

The lawsuit against Koebel and WTMJ station owner Journal Communications says that the application for the bus driver’s job only required applicants to list felony convictions, and Dumas has never been charged with a felony.

Lorinda Percifield, manager at Durham School Services, the bus company Dumas worked for, was unavailable for comment.

As a result of the news report, the district sent parents a taped message that said, “In recent days it was reported to MPS that a few school bus drivers had information in their background checks that needed a second look.”

And despite the fact that the lawsuit claims that disclosure of misdemeanor charges were not required in application materials, Mike Turza, the Milwaukee School District’s business manager, told Koebel in a follow-up report: “On face value of it, no, she should have never been there, OK. I don’t know what happened.”

Turza didn’t return my phone call seeking comment.

The lawsuit claims that Dumas suffered “pain, suffering and disability, including emotional distress, loss of earnings and earning capacity and medical expenses, all of which are expected to continue into the future.” The lawsuit claims that Koebel interfered with Dumas’ contractual relationship with Durham School Services, which fired Dumas after the report aired. Dumas is also seeking damages for emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

According to her lawyer, Richard Schulz, Dumas, who now has to explain to prospective employers why she was fired from her job, is still looking for work.

“She turned her life around,” says Schulz. “She’s going to college. She was driving a bus. She has a daughter who’s graduating from high school. She was doing fine.”

No one can argue with the merits of watchdogging the district’s bus service contractors. And Dumas, given her role as an employee working with public school kids, was certainly fair game.

But some say Koebel overplayed Dumas' past as a prostitute. He did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“That woman did not need to be stalked,” says Hietpas, of the Benedictine Center. “What we’re trying to do at our agency is to help women get out of that life and find real jobs. And she did.”

Hietpas’ boss, Jeanne Geraci, the executive director of the Benedict Center, says that women caught up in prostitution are often more victim than perpetrator. She says Dumas was “posing absolutely no harm to the children she was working with.”

“I think there are some criminal charges that should disqualify someone from working with our children, but I don’t think that prostitution is one of them,” Geraci says. “Especially when it’s a seven-year-old misdemeanor and nothing has come up since then. ... I think journalists have a responsibility to focus on real issues and problems, not to sensationalize a would-be scandal when there really isn’t one and ruin people’s lives in the process.”

Koebel reported that the school district originally withheld the list of bus drivers’ names. When the district coughed up some 1,200 names, the reporting team said it went through the list, checking court and police records. What did it come up with? Billed as “another explosive I-Team investigation,” the team found three drivers with records.

One of the drivers, the investigation found, had a 2005 record of theft and speeding, and several offenses involving driving without a valid registration or with a suspended license -- in other words, small-time stuff.

Another, 69-year-old Andrew L. Williams -- and this was reported well into the news segment -- was busted last December driving a car down a street the wrong way, an empty bottle of hydrocodone next to him and a loaded gun in his pocket. According to the police report, he was too intoxicated to perform a field sobriety exam.

Williams subsequently pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and was cited for a traffic violation. According to the police report -- and Koebel didn’t bother to mention this -- Williams was issued a citation for driving while intoxicated. The Milwaukee Municipal Court had no record of the citation, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office didn’t return an inquiry about whether it’s being handled by that office.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Benedict Center as the Benedictine Center.

Copyright 2015 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(18) Comments

  1. classic
    Report Abuse
    classic - July 07, 2012 12:54 pm
    Worst thing about reading a lot of these comments is that had this been a man they would have been lauding the reporter and slapping him on the back for a job well done.
  2. glenrusswood
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    glenrusswood - July 07, 2012 11:38 am
    reporters; nearly all Skum of the earth,can make VERY easy money in a short time,look at Heseellberg,Rickirts Spukussa,ELBOW pretty much entire staff at the Urinal and The Crap time, Dirty Tricksters?:One and all
    some ,more than others,Slimeballs extrordinaire with a US Comstitution on their side.
    This a primo example
  3. Barb10242
    Report Abuse
    Barb10242 - July 07, 2012 7:45 am
    This was a witch hunt, plain and simple. What a shame that a reporter would dig up whatever dirt could be find and ruin someone's life like this. If the application had asked for ANY arrests, I think Dumas would likely have listed the prostitution arrest. Perhaps she was trying to make money the only way she could at that time. At any rate, that arrest should never have been dredged up, as it had nothing to do with her ability to drive.
  4. skylarks
    Report Abuse
    skylarks - July 07, 2012 5:38 am
    A reporter??. Really low idiot! What kind of harm will this lady do to kids on the bus? Hope she gets a million and that idiot reporter?, gets a job washing the bus she drove. Would not trust him behind the wheel,
  5. Supermissf
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    Supermissf - July 06, 2012 11:07 pm
    Wow. Nice work G Gordon!
  6. farming
    Report Abuse
    farming - July 06, 2012 10:11 pm
    Steve - guess I hit a nerve with you over my coment about the Hooters story. Even you should admit it was written as a last resort when you realized Scott Walker was going to win again. Also if Hooters was such a dark place I don't think they could have built one right next to Olive Garden.
  7. TheJudoon
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    TheJudoon - July 06, 2012 6:46 pm
    Maybe he should lose his job for doing this, no?
  8. Warren G Harding
    Report Abuse
    Warren G Harding - July 06, 2012 6:19 pm
    Lorax, you must admit it was pretty funny listening to Walker pee his pants with exitement talking to who he thought was his main constituent, David Koch. We terrorists, union thugs and welfare queens don't have much left except our college degrees, metaphors, parodies and satires. You guys have the money and the resentment so rub it in every chance you get.
  9. TheJudoon
    Report Abuse
    TheJudoon - July 06, 2012 6:12 pm
    Not only did Ms. Hooters work there, she put pix of herself out on the web that were pretty darn ... wide open.
    This school bus driver wasn't quite in the public eye at the level of the Governor's spokesperson, was she?
  10. Steven Elbow Staff
    Report Abuse
    Steven Elbow - July 06, 2012 6:11 pm
    Yep, I wrote the story about the family values preaching Walker spokeswoman who worked at Hooters before choosing to become a public figure in the political arena. That doesn't mean I can't point out a reporter who ambushed a working stiff who's trying to turn her life around.
  11. TheJudoon
    Report Abuse
    TheJudoon - July 06, 2012 5:59 pm
    Koebel is a nincompoop, and his news station has sunk to Faux News standards allowing him to do such a thing.
    Real journalists are few and far between these days. But you'll know them when you read them because some idiotic "patriot" will be calling him/her a communist.
  12. farming
    Report Abuse
    farming - July 06, 2012 4:18 pm
    steve are you not the one that wrote the story about Scott Walker employee that worked at Hooters in college?
  13. G Gordon
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    G Gordon - July 06, 2012 4:09 pm
    That reporter, Rob Koebel, sure looks like the same reporter who was fired from a Phoenix TV station in 2004. A "Rob Koebel" donated to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's campaign after being convicted of DUI, then aired a rumor-filled "rape" story about Arpaio's political opponent on Channel 15 in Phoenix. The station fired Koebel after they found out about the political donation.

    "On November 3, Koebel reported to the Estrella Jail to begin serving his 12-day sentence. He says he was greeted by a detention officer who had good news. Koebel would not be forced to endure the indignities at Tent City, but instead would be housed in the comfortable accommodations at the Mesa Hilton."

    http://www.arpaio.com/wordpress/?p=16

    http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2007-01-25/news/boob-s-tube/

    http://www.gradethenews.org/pages2/politicalfunds.htm

    Funny that his current employer, WTMJ, doesn't mention the phoenix firing or the DUI in their bio of Rob Koebel. Maybe it's just coincidence that the sleazy reporter in Phoenix looks like and has the same name as WTMJ's reporter, who also worked in Phoenix in 2004.

    http://www.todaystmj4.com/about/people/123923404.html

    Just askin'
  14. Mom of 2
    Report Abuse
    Mom of 2 - July 06, 2012 3:59 pm
    So let me get this straight; he claims to want to protect the kids, which is great, but then he emphasizes that we taxpayers are footing the bill...but we are still footing the bill for her unemployment now that she's been fired...
  15. PapaLorax
    Report Abuse
    PapaLorax - July 06, 2012 2:33 pm
    The Cap Times wants to talk journalistic integrity? The weekly insert that routinely blasts Walker for things he said on a prank phone call...well over a year later?

    Pretty shaky ground.
  16. carbon cycle
    Report Abuse
    carbon cycle - July 06, 2012 1:43 pm
    I hope she gets her job back; why would a reporter do this to a person?
  17. Supermissf
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    Supermissf - July 06, 2012 1:06 pm
    This story makes me so sad. This woman did nothing wrong; she filled out her application honestly and was hired honestly. For her to lose her job in order for the district to save face is a disgrace and pathetic.

    And by the way, how were these "investigations" performed on the 1200 bus drivers? Oh, by looking them up on CCAP? You bet your bottom dollar that's what happened. Cheap, dirty excuse for journalism. Another reason why CCAP should be limited. It serves no purpose other than to allow people to discriminate and judge one another.
  18. Pyrotechnical
    Report Abuse
    Pyrotechnical - July 06, 2012 12:20 pm
    What does "journalistic integrity" mean to this jerk? He only wants his big story and doesn't care whose lives he ruins getting it.

    I hope he loses millions and HIS job. She got out of that life... why are you bringing it back to her, especially when she is WORKING?
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