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.