- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

WILLIAMSBURG (AP) Those who apply for jobs as mall Santas and their elves may not always be nice. Some have been found to be naughty very naughty with convictions for illegal firearms, assault and solicitation of prostitution on their records.
That is why malls across the country are performing pre-employment background checks to see just what kinds of people want to play Santa.
One of those people, William Pierce, 58, didn't mind undergoing the check when he applied for the Santa position at Patrick Henry Mall in Williamsburg.
"We are role models," he said. Anyone who takes the job "has to be a good person and treat everyone with respect."
Digital Memorys, an employment screening company based in Tyrone, Ga., cleared Mr. Pierce to play Santa after working with Virginia State Police to dig into his background.
Because Santas reflect their malls in the eyes of shoppers, performing the checks has become a thriving business.
Concerns aren't unfounded. A spot survey of companies that perform background checks has found that 70 out of 1,000 persons who apply to be Santa or an elf have had felony or misdemeanor convictions over the past seven years.
Bruce Clayton, a father of four from Hampton, said the background checks are needed.
"Since I don't know who Santa is, I'd hope that the malls know who he is and take responsibility for my children's safety," he said.
Mall officials said they must be cautious when choosing the person to play a position that requires so much trust from parents.
"To ensure every measure of possible safety, we use [a company that] has been screening Santas and his helpers for over nine years," said Karen Smith, marketing director at Coliseum Mall in Hampton.
A nearby Hampton Roads mall, Lynnhaven, used Asset Control Inc., based near Dallas, for screening Santas. The firm investigates job applicants for companies across the United States.
Russ Rosenberg, the company's president, estimated that 11 percent of the potential hires his firm checks out have criminal histories.
Fingerprinting and drug testing are sometimes part of Santa screenings, and prospective workers often must pay for the investigations to receive the part-time jobs.
Mr. Pierce doesn't consider playing Santa a job. He brushes his real white beard four times a day, gargles at least three times each day and frequently brushes his teeth to enhance his Santa appearance.
"I don't get to see my grandchildren much, so this is a treat for me," he said.
Another Santa, Chuck Williams of Williamsburg, has been listening to children's Christmas requests for more than 37 years around Hampton Roads.
"When I started playing Santa Claus almost 40 years ago, no one ever thought about people's backgrounds," he said. "Times have changed."
Mr. Williams said the experience can be heartwarming when Santas stay within common-sense boundaries.
"You never force a child to come to you or force them onto your lap. I let the mommies adjust the little girls' skirts once they are sitting," Mr. Williams said. "I understand that you have to be very careful."
Mr. Clayton explained, "You don't want your kids to give Santa your address if he's a crook and late at night you have the wrong Santa showing up at your door."

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