Why is a convicted sex offender with false credentials running a King County-funded youth program?
As Saleem Robinson tells it, he used to run the streets of Chicago. Now he runs a nonprofit in Seattle for vulnerable young people.
His past makes him particularly qualified for this work, he says. But King County, the primary funder of his nonprofit, has done little research into that past.
The county never ran a criminal background check on Robinson, nor verified his credentials, before funding a $266,400 subcontract in 2021 for him to work with young people affected by gun violence through the nonprofit he founded, Renegades for Life Youth Outreach.
A background check would have shown that Robinson does not have the credentials he claims, including a master’s degree in social work from Seattle University, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington.
Officials would have also learned that he was on the sex offender registry until last year, for public masturbation, his second conviction of that nature.
They would have seen that Robinson was previously named Basim Salim Abdul-Rahim, and before that, James Thomas Tribblet. Those names all appear on court records from earlier this year.
Robinson is awaiting trial next month for felony insurance fraud.
His nonprofit, Renegades for Life Youth Outreach, is among 11 organizations that Public Health – Seattle & King County and the City of Seattle support as part of a $5.9 million gun violence prevention initiative known as the Regional Peacekeepers Collective.
King County does not typically conduct background checks on employees in organizations it contracts with – a hands-off approach that lets people who would not be allowed to work in public schools work one-on-one with young people in crisis.
James Apa, spokesperson for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said the organizations in the Regional Peacekeepers Collective “were identified by the community for their established connections and history of support, credibility and trust to address issues of gun violence.”
King County does not typically require background checks of its contracting agencies, including the Regional Peacekeepers organizations, said Kate Cole, another Public Health spokesperson. However, after KUOW first inquired about the county's background check policies, in July, the county took some action.
"Moving forward, through the county’s direction, the lead [Regional Peacekeepers Collective] organizations will provide guidance for and assurance that subcontractors conduct background checks for appropriate staff," Cole said in July.
The lead organization in the collective, Community Passageways, was responsible for ensuring that its subcontractor organizations (like Renegades for Life) background-checked all staff who work with minors, and for physically reviewing the background of executive directors who worked with minors, Apa said.
Asked whether Community Passageways was aware of Robinson's background, spokesperson Katoya Palmer said the organization will conduct an internal investigation.
The Regional Peacekeepers Collective was created in 2021 in response to a recent spike in gunshot injuries and deaths: The King County Prosecutor’s Office reports that shootings increased by 80% between 2019 and 2021.
The collective stands to receive another $9 million in the budget proposed this week by King County Executive Dow Constantine, as well as $1.5 million in Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s newly proposed budget.
“We’re part of the critical incident response," Robinson said of Renegades for Life Youth Outreach's work for the county. His experience as a young man “living that street life” in Chicago, where he recently opened a Renegades for Life chapter, prepared him for this work, he said.
“I’m a social worker. I do case management, I do outreach work,” Robinson said by phone last week.
The Renegades for Life website touts itself as being “known for providing the best youth care programs in Seattle." It says it offers youth mentoring, an after-school program, street outreach, housing services, and support for victims of sex and labor trafficking.
Renegades’ youth job skills training involves unpaid “pre-apprenticeships” cleaning office buildings and residential complexes through Robinson’s ex-wife’s cleaning service, The Clean Queen.
In addition, Renegades for Life promises young people trauma-informed mental health services.
“Our Expertise is in youth and family counseling!” its website reads. “We have changed the lives of families and youths through careful intervention by keeping them together and providing them with comprehensive tools that work for them and produces a better quality of life! By providing Individual and group counseling with multi-systemic therapy!”
Robinson said his team meets with families after shootings to “provide them with programming to de-escalate and cut down on retaliation, and also to help them heal if there has been a death. We make sure they get grief and loss counseling.”
According to the Renegades website, Robinson’s training includes a Master of Social Work degree from Seattle University in 2007. But that credential is impossible, said university spokesperson Lincoln Vander Veen, because “the first graduating class of our [Master of Social Work] was 2018.”
There is no record that Robinson ever enrolled at Seattle University, Vander Veen said, including under any of his previous names.
Officials at the University of Washington also found no evidence of Robinson’s attendance, nor his purported 2009 bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I have no idea why my academic records are not showing up. I don't know what's going on with that,” Robinson said.
In 2010, then known as Basim Salim Abdul-Rahim, he pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted felony indecent exposure with sexual motivation after a bartender at 13 Coins in SeaTac told police he repeatedly came to the restaurant and masturbated while staring at her.
The first time police responded, according to charging documents, the suspect was gone but had left behind a jar of Vaseline. The next time the bartender called 911, police records show, Abdul-Rahim — aka Robinson — was at the scene with petroleum jelly on his hands.
Court records show he admitted masturbating at the restaurant, but said he wasn’t leering at the bartender — he said he was having phone sex with his wife. When police called his wife, records show, she denied her husband’s claim and told them he had been arrested before for the same offense.
Clallam County court records show Robinson, then known as James Thomas Tribblet, pleaded guilty to indecent exposure in 2007 and served 30 days in jail.
Tribblet changed his name to Basim Salim Abdul-Rahim in 2009. Days after his 2010 arrest, he changed his name again, to Saleem Robinson.
Robinson was required to register as a sex offender until 2021.
Robinson called his sex offenses “just poor decision making on my part,” but said they are irrelevant to his work for King County. They did not involve children or physical force, he said.
“No one was raped,” he said. “No one was harmed.” He said that the incidents involved having phone sex in public.
“It was a kind of a turn-on to me,” Robinson said. “Everybody gets their sexual excitements in different ways.”
Asked whether those convictions should disqualify him from working with young people, Robinson said that his work for the county only involves adults ages 18 and over.
Robinson said the youth mentoring, therapy, and after-school activities mentioned on his organization's website are still in the “research and development” phase, and do not, in fact, exist.
“We don’t deal with minors here,” Robinson said. “We're not equipped to deal with kids that age.”
Robinson’s legal troubles continued in May of this year after he crashed an uninsured car, bought an insurance policy for it hours later, and filed a claim for damages later that evening.
Robinson called what happened “a poor choice,” but said he had been unaware of the law.
“Had I known that there was such thing as insurance fraud, I would have never filed the claim,” he said.
The Regional Peacekeepers Collective intentionally includes outreach workers who have experienced gun violence, “including ‘second chance’ staff with previous criminal records,” said Public Health spokesperson James Apa.
By Washington state law, teachers’ licenses are denied or permanently revoked for most sex crime convictions, including indecent exposure.
King County, however, sets no criteria for convictions that disqualify contractors from working with youth.
“We rely on each agency to evaluate their background check findings to ensure that minors are appropriately protected,” Apa said.
Although the county sketched out the roles for each subcontractor organization in the Regional Peacekeepers Collective, the lead contractors, Community Passageways and Rainier Beach Action Coalition, are responsible for the details. Those details are murky – including the exact work Renegades for Life has been contracted to perform.
The county does not have copies of the subcontractor organization contracts, Apa said, including $1.5 million in subcontracts to Renegades for Life Youth Outreach, Alive & Free, Progress Pushers, Choose 180, and Freedom Project.
Apa referred KUOW to its lead organization overseeing those sub-grants, Community Passageways, for those contracts.
But Community Passageways Chief Operations Officer Katoya Palmer said the organization was “reluctant” to provide KUOW the amounts sub-grantees receive, citing concern about “our community partners and any potential impacts to them.”
She did not respond to a request for details about the work those organizations, including Renegades for Life, conduct.
Update 10/7/22 9 am: Community Passageways terminated its contract with Renegades for Life Youth Outreach following this story. In a letter to Saleem Robinson, Community Passageways wrote:
"... The values we maintain as critical to servant leadership and restorative justice practices are integrity, honesty, loyalty, and truth. Although you are one of the most loyal, we question your integrity and ability to tell the truth in light of recent findings. Further, the contract you signed specifically requires all staff to work with youth. You shared that your organization does not work with youth, and there are other issues related to good faith negotiations, such that a breach of contract has been noted as a result."
To reach reporter Ann Dornfeld, email email@example.com or text or call 206-486-6505.