RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Department of Transportation is facing a complaint about its rehiring a white Cary engineer who had been fired for assaulting a black school-bus driver last year.
The state chapter of the NAACP took offense when the department reinstated Derry Schmidt. DOT had fired Schmidt after he was charged in the incident, which happened May 23, 2007, in a parking area outside Cary Elementary School.
The jury that convicted Schmidt of assault acquitted him of committing a hate crime. He apologized to bus driver Jametta Lynette Farrar of Raleigh for using a racial slur, but said race was not a factor and that he had been angry.
After he was fired, he appealed to the state Office of Administrative Hearings and got his $77,000-a-year job back.
“We felt that it was so horrendous at the time, it would impact the work at the office as well as his colleagues and it was worthy of termination,” Secretary of Transportation Lyndo Tippett said Friday.
Tippett said he understands why some people are angered by the decision to reinstate Schmidt, but that the agency had no choice.
“The conditions in which you can fire an employee for conduct in the workplace as well as outside the workplace are pretty well-defined by state statute,” the secretary said.
Looking at the actions from outside DOT, Rev. William Barber, NAACP state president, said, “That is deeply troubling for us. It is not the kind of atmosphere that we ought to have in state government.”
Barber says he and many of DOT's black employees are outraged. As a result, the organization plans to call for an examination into the department’s hiring and firing practices.
“I wonder what would happen if it had been an African-American who had been found guilty, who had engaged in some type of racial activity, been charged with racist behavior? Would he be reinstated? Would a deal have been cut?” Barber asked.
As the dispute over Schmidt’s reinstatement goes on, a bill that would increase penalties for racial intimidation is bottled up in committee in the General Assembly.
Committee members delayed a vote to give lawmakers more time to consider proposed changes. As written, the bill would make it a felony to burn a cross or hang a noose with the intent of intimidation.
One lawmaker proposed adding burning the American flag to the list. Another wanted to remove racial and religious qualifiers from the bill.