Nov 242014
 

For many workers in the private sector, the day after Thanksgiving is not a holiday.  For them, Black Friday, the maddest shopping day of the year, is most certainly not a paid holiday.

The same goes for Flag Day and Election Day, other tailor-made public sector paid days off.  In Wilkes-Barre, Mayor Tom Leighton is fending off some activists and union workers who are demanding that City Hall close on Martin Luther King’s birthday to allow its workers to pay homage to this great civil rights leader.  Between you and me, they don’t need a day off with pay to do that any more than they need one to salute Betsy Ross on Flag Day.

This brings us to a Luzerne County union, which is having a fit because its members expected to be paid the day before Thanksgiving instead of on their normal pay day which is the Friday after.  But the courthouse is closed on that day because of the Black Friday “holiday.”  The employees’ credit union, which is located there, is also closed.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is arguing that its members always got paid the day before a holiday.  But that was before that oppressive Home Rule charter went into effect.  Back then, there were a lot of past practices made by former county commissioners that we’re still paying for, like digging the county into an almost half-billion dollars in debt and shutting down the courthouse the day after Thanksgiving so county workers could hit the mall and/or recuperate from iindulging in too much turkey and pumpkin pie.

Well, with Home Rule came changes.  Responding to the union’s complaint, county Manager Robert Lawton said past policies were not intended to be a contract and that it’s necessary to ensure that employees are compensated for the actual hours they worked that week.  He makes a point.  What if some workers left a little early on Wednesday but were paid for the full day?

SOOOOOOOO.

Not placated, the union filed a grievance over the issue, The Times Leader reported.

“The majority of employees belong to the credit union, and this makes money for the Thanksgiving holiday inaccessible,” said Paula Schnelly, AFSCME’s union head. Surely, she’s not concerned that if union employees were not paid on Wednesday, they would be forced to choose between purchasing their medicine or a pecan pie?

Back in Wilkes-Barre, we don’t know yet whether City Hall’s unionized workers will file a grievance if they have to work one more Martin Luther King birthday in January when other public sector workers have the day off.  But, according to a published report, United Steelworkers Local 5652 representative Bill Herbert  told the city council that not giving city workers this day off could  signal a failure to remember that MLK’s birthday ”stands for equality to everyone.”  Everyone, that is, except for the private sector chumps who have to work that day.

And speaking of equality, what about Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony?  Where are their holidays?  Why should there be a day off for George, Abe and Martin but not for Rosa and Susan?  Could that be construed as gender discrimination?

Last we heard, the city unions were not willing to trade Flag Day for MLK Day as the mayor suggested.  But, really, shouldn’t they have to choose?  NOOOOO, because if they pick Flag Day and not MLK’s birthday, some may lablel them racists.  So they’re willing to take both days off with pay.  Problem solved.

Are you okay with that, taxpayers? After all, you’re the ones paying the bill.  Giving City Hall workers an additional day off would cost about $77,000, Mayor Leighton estimated.   An insignificant amount, retired NAACP President Ron Felton, who doesn’t have to pay the bill, countered.

It’s not clear how much it’s costing taxpayers to give unionized public school teachers the Friday and Monday after Thanksgiving off.

But maybe we’re being too picky expecting them to return to their classrooms on Monday and miss out on the festivities of another anticipated yearly holiday, the first day of deer season.

 

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 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Jun 082014
 

It never ends, does it?

“Public servants” once again are charged with robbing those they serve, and this time, it was a piece a cake.  All it took was a push of a button to reap millions of dollars into the coffers of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.

I, for one, would love to know what became of all that extra cash.  You may have heard that the LCTA had built up a $7 million surplus.  Now we know how.  There were huge spikes in the number of ghosts boarding county buses.  And now two LCTA big shots are charged with multiple felonies.

The LCTA’s state funding increased when its ridership did , which it didn’t in recent years.  That’s where the ghosts handily came in.  When a senior citizen boarded the bus, drivers allegedly  logged a truck load of them.  Union jobs were protected, and LCTA administrators had more money to hoard.  Everyone was happy.

Well, this despicable public authority got caught.

Kudos to Luzerne County Councilman Edward Brominski who took seriously the disturbing information authority board member Patrick Conway shared with him.  Brominski later contacted state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who jumped on it.

The rest of the LCTA board did nothing.  Chairman Sal Licata still insists on singing the praises of authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish.  Licata incredibly on Wednesday told The Citizens Voice that Strelish’ record has been “exemplary.”  Maybe he considers charges of theft by deception and tampering with public records part of an “exemplary,” record, but the rest of us don’t.  This guy should really consider stepping down.

When the story broke, Strelish blamed the padded ridership counts on authority drivers.  They couldn’t count properly, he actually said.

Strelish is now charged with 47 criminal counts.  Authority operations director Robb Henderson is charged with 27 counts, including conspiring to tamper with public records.

Someone is lying here.  Strelish is claiming that the unionized drivers conspired to make him look bad.  Guess what, Stan?  If that’s the case, they succeeded.

An LCTA driver, reportedly a former head of the transit union, recalled a meeting with Strelish and claims he said, ”It would be wise for us to tell everybody to be smart about it and increase the ridership.”  Whistleblower board member Conway told The Times Leader that the drivers who falsified the number of riders also should have been charged.

That’s what you think, bub.  “I ain’t playing their game,” was the response of Paul Jason, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 164, who refused to respond to Conway’s remarks.  We have news for you, Mr. Jason.  This aint no game.

This is going to get interesting, and maybe the truth will come out when Strelish and Henderson go to trial for what AG Kane characterized as defrauding the Commonwealth of more than $3.1 million.

If you ask me, they’re all a bunch of snakes.

The public spotlight should never have been taken off the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.  Who knew what else they got away with operating outside the public’s view in their headquarters behind Kirby Park.

Back in 1993, I was writing for the now defunct Sunday Independent and reported that the LCTA had spent at least $16,500 of public money on travel and entertainment, including $1,500 for a Christmas party at the Fox Hill Country Club where the agency’s directors and executives dined on filet mignon and racked up a $400 bar bill.

I had also learned that some board members and their wives flew to San Diego for a conference while some traveled to Toronto for another one.  Neither junket was approved at a public meeting.

Then authority executive director Harold Edwards said the reason the LCTA routinely spent public money to treat board members and agency administrators to Christmas parties was ”because it’s Christmas.”  Nice.

Does anyone think for a minute that this entitlement mentality at the LCTA  stopped since then?

Sadly, our local newspapers don’t seem to put a priority on investigative reporting these days.  So these arrogant men and women who sit on local boards and authorities can continue to do whatever they want.

And don’t think that they don’t.

- Betty Roccograndi

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 Posted by at 7:47 pm
Apr 302014
 

I’m sorry, but sometimes Luzerne County Commissioner Vice-Chairman Edward Brominski acts like a bit of an oaf.

His contempt for county Manager Robert Lawton has never been subtle, but last week, Brominski took the low road and publicly asked for his resignation.  We get it, requesting it in private wouldn’t have landed him on the front page of our local newspapers.

But if Brominski’s intent was to publicly humiliate Lawton, I’m guessing it was Brominski who was, or should be, embarrassed from that meeting in the Luzerne County romper room.

Staunch Lawton ally Councilman Jim Bobeck said the manager’s “sin” is that he “appears to be smarter than some council members.”

That, of course, didn’t sit too well with Bromo, who shot back, “He may be smarter than you, but he’s not smarter than me.”  Chill, Bromo, Bobeck didn’t mention you by name.  Wink, wink.

The Times Leader continued its amusing account of the resignation request brouhaha a few days later when it revealed that one of Brominski’s advisors works at a business where he buys his morning paper.  I’m serious.

The county council’s second in charge  told TL reporter Jennifer-Learn Andes, “He gives me advice, and he found nothing wrong with what I did.”  Well, that’s a relief.  Brominski didn’t volunteer what the cashier at his local grocery store thought or whether the area gas station attendant agreed with his blindsiding of Lawton.

Anyway, it appears that Mr. Lawton took Brominski’s surprise attack in stride after learning that six of the 11 council members dashed Brominski’s plan.

“Please stop with the antics.  The public is growing very weary of the political fodder and  grandstanding,” Councilman Harry Haas said.

“I hope he stays here for a long time,” wished Councilman Rick Williams.

Over my dead body, Brominski must have been thinking.

And Council member Linda McClosky Houck, who also voted against asking Lawton to resign, reminded everyone that Lawton inherited a “disastrous mess.”

But even so, he raised taxes 8-percent and laid off employees, new council member Eileen Sorokas said, adding that she doesn’t see progress – unlike the progress that was sure to come whittling down the county’s $400 million debt without a tax increase or layoffs.

Brominski’s new sidekick Kathy Dobash complained that the administration’s providing information regarding the 2012 audit was “lacking.”  She didn’t elaborate.  And because it was lacking, she is refusing to participate in a formal evaluation of the county manager.  That’ll show everybody she means business.

Some in attendance, who actually do seem smarter than some of the council members, also had something to say.

Kingston resident Brian Shiner, who has criticized Lawton on occasion, called Brominski’s motion “absolutely ridiculous” and said the council’s “dysfunctional.”

A dysfunctional county council is certainly not what we bargained for when we voted for Home Rule.

We also didn’t bargain for a bunch of grandstanders and petty bickering.

What we did bargain for was an 11-member council brainstorming in a reasonable manner to get Luzerne County on firm financial footing after years of three-panel county commissioners digging us deeper and deeper into the hole.

We also bargained for an objective county manager with no ties to elected officials and one who was not afraid to make the hard decisions.

Robert Lawton seems to be that guy, but we’ll wait for a formal, and hopefully objective, evaluation from  those who work with him.

We’ll also take with a grain of salt the opinions of those who seem to just not like the guy.

- Betty Roccograndi

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 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Apr 282014
 

“This community will remain the same if there is no punishment for those who pay,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Consiglio declared at Robert Mericle’s sentencing hearing on Friday.

Bingo!

Mericle did pay an unknown number of elected officials for their influence, including a now deceased state senator and two imprisoned Luzerne County judges, and now he’ll be paid back by spending a year in a federal prison - maybe.

But Mr. Consiglio’s grand statement is rather amusing when one considers that his office was okay with Mericle, who was at the heart of the infamous “Kids for Cash, $2 million kickback scheme,”  spending as little as six months in home confinement or probation.

That’s what the U.S. Attorney’s Office calls punishment?  That’s what they consider a deterrent to engaging in massive pay-to-play schemes in which wealthy, connected individuals like Mericle pay unethical elected officials bundles of cash and gifts, allowing both sides to profit at the expense of others?

No, we’ll give U.S. District Judge Edwin Kosik the credit for sending a loud and clear message that despite one’s wealth, connections, pages and pages of accolades and good deeds, if you engage in corruption, you will not get away with it.

Thank you, Judge Kosik.

In the  minds of the average person, Judge Kosik is a profile in courage.  He wasn’t swayed by the legions of those whom Mericle has helped over the years begging him to set him free.  He ignored the scare tactics that without Mericle at the helm of his business, jobs, lives and children’s futures would be at stake.

No, Judge Kosik relayed a powerful message that even a man as powerful as Mericle must do the time for the crime he committed.

And that crime was hardly a bump as his attorney David Zinn characterized Mericle’s lying to federal investigators about the $2 million he slipped to two judges on the take.

“His cooperation was not perfect, but it was close, your honor,” Zinn  said.

Your honor was not moved.

“Of course, the bumps you’re talking about are instances in which he was untruthful, would you agree?”  You gotta love Judge Kosik.

Uh, uh, uh.  “I don’t mean by describing it as a bump in the road to minimize it,” responded Mericle’s Washington D.C. attorney.  He could have fooled us.  “My client, Mr. Mericle, kicks himself every day,” Attorney Zinn said.

He also said his client, Mr. Mericle, “understands that what he did was wrong.  He has worked four and a half years to amend that.”

When exactly did Mr. Mericle understand that it was wrong to give judges an exorbitant “finder’s fee” for helping him land a lucrative contract to build two juvenile centers?  When he did it or after he got caught?

As for the 4 1/2 years amending his admitted wrongdoing, the only reason he was of use to federal prosecutors was because he had the goods on the corrupted elected officials he paid.  Mericle was intimately entangled in their crimes and ever so willing to bring them down when his hide was on the line.  Yeah, he’s one great guy!

Judge Kosik revealed that Mericle wrote him the day before his sentencing, saying “he believes he should have told some people to go to Hell.”  Who were they, we wonder?  Mark Ciavarella, who instructed Mericle to deliver his “finder’s fee” through a third party?  If his “finder’s fee” was on the up and up, why did Mericle agree to do that?

Was that another ”bump” in Robert Mericle’s business model of playing fair and square?

“You can’t characterize Mr. Mericle’s conduct as other than criminal conduct,” Judge Kosik said, which The Times Leader also reported.

“This community has had public corruption for a very long time,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Consiglio added.  And that’s because “corrupt public officials have relationships” with those who pay them for their influence.

Yes, for every Mark Ciavarella, Michael Conahan and Raphael Musto, there is a Robert Mericle.

So why was the U.S. Attorney’s Office so willing to allow this pay-to-play magnate to serve a sentence of six months in the comforts of his home?  Some would call that a vacation.

Had this no-nonsense judge agreed, he would have reinforced the notion that there are indeed two systems of justice, one for the Robert Mericles of the world and the other for average citizens who lie to federal investigators and then audaciously portray it as a bump.

- Betty Roccograndi

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 Posted by at 11:25 am
Apr 132014
 

To all you would be criminals out there, do some good deeds, create some jobs and then commit some crimes. The latter won’t matter.

“Imprisonment would not achieve any public benefit,”  said the lawyers for powerhouse local developer Robert Mericle.

Either would holding former state senator Raphael Musto accountable for his alleged crimes.  Or former Wilkes-Barre Area solicitor and alleged Bernie Madoff clone, Tony Lupas.  Good guys both.  So what the former was charged with using his elected office to line his own pockets while the latter bilked school district taxpayers by racking up unbelievable legal fees and allegedly swindled his friends who invested with him?

While we’re at it, leave the honorable former state senator Robert Mellow alone already.  Having him locked up is not beneficial to the public.  He’s no threat.  So what he used his elected office for financial gain?  He also brought home a lot of bacon for his constituents.  So, like Bob Mericle, isn’t this a wash?

Even federal prosecutors are for giving Mericle a break because if he didn’t turn on the very judges he paid off, the investigation may have been derailed, The Times Leader reported.  So what he only did that when he himself became implicated in the infamous “Kids for Cash” scheme?

“A defendant with his resources is always in a position to do much good, especially financial good, for the community,” U.S. Attorney Peter Smith wrote.  “However, the good works should not appear as a shield or cloak to avoid the consequences of criminal conduct,” he added.

If you say so, Pete.  Yeah, make him spend the next six months on probation or, worse, wallowing in the comforts of his Jackson Township home.  That’ll teach him.

And while we’re at it, let’s spring former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan from prison.  Why should they spend the rest of their lives paying for their crimes?  Before he got greedy, Ciavarella was praised for his tough love sentences, trying to scare wayward youths and juvenile delinquents into learning the difference between right and wrong before it was too late.  Doesn’t that count for something?

So what the once respected judge Ciavarella  couldn’t resist the $2 million his buddy Robert Mericle dangled before him for helping him land two lucrative contracts to build the two now infamous “Kids for Cash” prisons, which put Luzerne County on the map?

Mericle’s ”continued presence is an asset to the Northeastern Pennsylvnia community,” say his lawyers.

No one is accusing Robert Mericle of being a common criminal.  He’s not; he just knows how to game the system, and when it suits him, he brings down the elected and appointed officials who couldn’t resist the cash and gifts he brought to their tables.  He is the culprit.

So when Mericle is sentenced on April 25,  and if Senior U.S. Judge Edwin Kosik defers to the wishes of Mericle’s lawyers, the prosecution and his community beneficiaries to go easy on him, no one will be surprised.

And why should we care anyway?  We already know that there are two sets of rules, one for the powerful and politically-connected, and one for everyone else.

- Betty Roccograndi

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 Posted by at 7:08 pm
Apr 062014
 

I’m a Wyoming Valley West taxpayer, and let me tell you, it sickens me that a student who frolicked with his hot-to-trot teacher now sees an opportunity to cash in.

A male high school student, one of allegedly four at last count, who dallied with former teacher Lauren Harrington-Cooper is suing Valley West.  It’s the district’s fault that this kid indulged in a little sexual activity with his alluring teacher, and now it must pay for his injuries.

“Sex with this teacher was so traumatic for a male teenager, he plans to sue the school district,” was the mocking reaction of education editor Eric Owens, a blogger for The Daily Caller.

Of course we live in a sue-happy society, so anything goes.

You may have heard that the family of a drug dealer shot to death at drug haven Sherman Hills in Wilkes-Barre is suing the owners for not protecting her from an angry competitor.  You may have also heard the phrase that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

Anyway, the alleged victim at WVW, who took advantage of the promiscuous teacher’s come-ons, is now crying foul.  He, like the others, probably later crowed about it too.

If he was indeed injured or felt assaulted, then let him hold Mrs. Cooper responsible.  But, then again, she probably isn’t wealthy enough to satisfy his other craving, a nice settlement.

On the other hand, Wyoming Valley West likely has ample insurance with which to settle this “case.”  Hopefully it won’t cave here.

Maybe Mrs. Harrington-Cooper will also sue Valley West for allowing hot male students to roam its hallways, tempting her into taking them to her car, where she allegedly performed oral sex on them.  Maybe she too was traumatized after realizing what she had done.  WVW should have known she had a problem and kept her away from these tantalizing students.

Like one online reader commented, “What’s next?  My child didn’t learn anything, and it’s the district’s fault.”

Long time WVW district solicitor Michael Hudacek said, “I don’t see where the district is negligent in any way.  This is what lawyers do.”

Yes, and that is why many refer to them as bottom feeders or ambulance chasers.  But don’t blame attorney Susan L. Luckenbill, who took the case.  She wrote to school district superintendent Charles Suppon that the student was a “victim of sexual assault and was a  minor at the time of the assault.”

Assault?  Did the kid try in vain to flee from the love mobile as Mrs. Harrington-Cooper was having her way with him?  If yes, then maybe he was a victim.  Or did he willingly go along for the joy ride?

Attorney Luckenbill, who did not return The Citizens’ Voice’s call for comment, said in her letter that her client suffered “damages and injuries” because of WVW’s negligence.

Then why stop at Wyoming Valley West?  She should go after Mrs. Cooper’s husband, who apparently didn’t satisfy her, and all the Valley West teachers, who should have warned this kid to stay away from their free spirited colleague.   Heck, hold the Pennsylvania State Education Association responsible for what this reckless teacher may have done to this poor kid.

That union has a lot of dough.  It should know when and if one of its members may have an addiction to cute, young students who leave their phone numbers on a teacher’s windshield and return her advances.

Sue the union.  It’s their fault as much as anyone’s.

- Betty Roccograndi

 

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 Posted by at 5:48 pm
Mar 282014
 

Up next.  No cell phone cameras at Wilkes-Barre City Council’s “limited designated public forum.”

Huh, you ask?  I know, we used to consider them public council meetings.  First concerned citizens could tell those they elected to office what’s on their minds, then the council would conduct its official business.

But on Thursday, we learned that “council meeting” is simply a euphemism for ”limited designated public forum,” which apparently limits free speech, especially from the likes of Bob Kadluboski and Frank Sorick, who heads the  Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association.  City Clerk Jim Ryan came up with that one.  He pretty much said that if you want to vent for more than five minutes, go to a park or street corner, which Ryan defined as a “traditional public forum,” which has no time limits.

We heard through the grapevine that the council wanted to give Mark Robbins, who blew the whistle on former city towing contractor Leo Glodzik, two minutes to speak if he signed the roster but decided it probably couldn’t get away with that.

While we do agree that elected bodies, including the Luzerne County Council, should be allowed to put in place some limitations for maintaining control, when the city council does it, it seems more like its stifling its critics.

Some in attendance Thursday night suggested pushing back the start time of the meeting so more people could attend.  NO.

How about holding your meetings on Saturday instead of Thursday night so more people could attend?  NO.

Council Chairman Bill Barrett found all of this ironic, saying ,”the people that were speaking now, that you just heard, are the very same people who say they don’t have an opportunity to speak.”  Now I could be wrong, but I believe they were complaining about having to sign up in advance, being constrained on their allotted time to speak and having to do so behind a rail (making it harder for the public to throw tomatoes at the council members.)

But Betsy Summers wasn’t amused at such irony.  ”Don’t you see what overregulation does?  It takes the power away from the people who already feel powerless,”  She got that right.

“I can’t imagine not having the right to speak because I have to work,” Ms. Summers complained.  She said she arrived at the meeting a little late because she was working in Allentown.  Had these proposed new rules already passed, she would have missed the 6 p.m. deadline for warning the council that she had something to say.  Wouldn’t you think that if someone cared enough to attend a council meeting after working all day out of town, the council members would want to hear what she had to say?

The Times Leader’s Friday article didn’t say whether city residents must state the nature of their concerns, complaints or praise in advance of being allowed to address their lordships.

The planned new rules moved a step closer to passage on a 4-0 vote Thursday night with Councilman Tony George being excused from attending, the TL reported.  The other four might be wishing they too stayed away.

Taxpayer Association leader Sorick snapped their pictures with his cell phone and vowed to put their mugs on a billboard come election time with the caption, “I voted to silence you.  Please return the favor this November.”  Now, that’s democracy in action.  And don’t think he’s kidding.  You may have seen city Mayor Tom Leighton gracing an earlier billboard helping himself to city-owned gas.

Why do elected officials sometimes seem to go out of their way to make it difficult to question them and/or obtain information which rightfully belongs to the public?

The much admired activist group Judicial Watch is forced to file Freedom of Information requests galore to learn the public’s business, including what it’s costing us for the Obamas to trot the globe.  And what they found out is outstanding.  Read my next post on Duchess Michelle’s latest trip to China.

Sometimes you feel that elected officials don’t want us to be informed because when we are, we many times have good reason to complain.

In Wilkes-Barre, you only have five minutes to do so, but you can always scream your head off in Kirby Park, where the squirrels and ducks will listen to you without limitation.

Unlike City Hall’s council chambers, the duck pond  there apparently qualifies as a ”traditional public forum” if we’re to believe city Clerk Ryan.

- Betty Roccograndi

 

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 Posted by at 10:37 am
Mar 152014
 

Tragic coincidence – or no coincidence at all?  You do the math.

Soon after FBI agents visited the Wilkes-Barre City Employees Federal Credit Union last week, its long-time manager James Payne killed himself.

The Citizens Voice reported he was a target of a criminal investigation.  Speaking to The Times Leader, the director of the FBI’s Scranton office said he didn’t know what the CV was talking about.

But Director Sean Quinn did say this:  “In my opinion, what led to Mr. Payne killing himself, it was the corruption circulating around the city of Wilkes-Barre.”

What a goof!  I personally don’t think you are, Mr. Quinn, but city Mayor Tom Leighton might.  Read Saturday’s Times Leader.  He doesn’t take kindly to criticism or, for that matter, questions.

Now, Director Quinn’s statement is a damning one.  Circulating corruption?  That sounds rather ominous.

Quinn also told the TL that his agency just “happened upon” the credit union while investigating something else, and he warned, “Arrests are coming.” And then to make sure he really put the fear of God in whomever, he added, “There are going to be people reading your article and saying, ‘He’s talking about me.’ ”

We know for a fact the FBI has now joined the investigation into the missing tens of thousands of gallons of public-owned fuel in Wilkes-Barre.  City Mayor Leighton, after he got caught, was forced to admit he helped himself to free gas because he is on the job 24/7.

No one with any common sense was satisfied with that justification.  Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis’ office was said to be investigating, but two years passed with no results.

It’s always a good thing to ask for help when you’ve hit a brick wall, and that’s what Salavantis did.  She said her probe was hampered by a “complete lack of policies, procedures, documentation, checks and balances, accounting and accountability regarding the use of gas by city employees and officials.”

That is another damning statement.  So let’s congratulate DA Salavantis for reaching out to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for help in determining whether any crimes were committed here.

City spokeswoman Lisa Prokop  promised that on behalf of the city, Mayor Leighton “will fully cooperate with any enforcement and regulatory agency which is conducting any investigation.”  Well no kidding, Lisa.

We can’t help  but wonder whether the FBI will be satisfied with the city’s lame explanation that the missing fuel was nothing more than the result of poor record-keeping.  This ”poor record keeping” cost taxpayers a fine and penalty of almost $26,000.  No biggie.  It didn’t come out of the pockets of those responsible.

The last time city officials seemed to accept poor record-keeping as an excuse was when the city’s former towing contractor Leo Glodzik couldn’t provide any documentation for the number of vehicles he towed to his lot, including stolen ones.  And this guy is in a heap of trouble.

Now, we’re left to wonder what led the FBI to the credit union, and why its manager took his own life.  If he wasn’t a target, did he believe he was?

Wilkes Barre City officials and employees in the know must be a little nervous about now.

Meanwhile, Mayor Leighton says there is no relationship whatsoever between the credit union and the city.

“The credit union and the City of Wilkes-Barre have absolutely nothing in common.  There is no relationship,” Leighton told the TL on Wednesday.  That may be true unless you consider that the top guy in City Hall has an exclusive deal to do appraisals for the credit union.  Leighton “acknowledged” to TL reporter Roger DuPuis that his real estate business C.A. Leighton Co.  has been paid over two decades to perform appraisals for the credit union, a City Hall tenant.  That was before he blasted DuPuis’ colleague Jerry Lynott who dared to question him whether this posed a conflict of interest.

“Are you questioning my professional integrity?”  an apparently steamed mayor demanded of Lynott.  Now who would do that except a ”bunch of goofs” Leighton accused Lynott of “listening to.”

One of those “goofs,” former city towing contractor Bob Kadluboski countered, “If we’re so goofy, why are federal officials handing out subpoenas?”

Score one for the goofs.

Maybe we should be asking how Mayor Leighton finds the time to do these credit union appraisals when he said he was entitled to free gas because he’s on the job as mayor 24/7.  Credit union attorney Dominick P. Pannunzio told pesky reporter Lynott that the mayor does appraisals for other credit unions as well.

How can that be when there are only 24 hours in a day?  Oh, yeah, the mayor’s bud (former bud?) J.J. Murphy blabbed in a Philly courtroom that Mayor Leighton only worked in City Hall three hours a day, leaving him to save the city from financial ruin.

But all kidding aside, something propelled credit union boss Jim Payne to end his life and consequently shatter his wife’s.

With the FBI on the scene and a promise of forthcoming arrests, it seems we’re about to find out that the culture of corruption may still be alive and well in Luzerne County.

- Betty Roccograndi

 

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 Posted by at 6:25 pm
Mar 072014
 

NOW what are we supposed to think?

Wilkes-Barre City Mayor Tom Leighton told us, after he got caught, that he was entitled to city-owned gas for his personal vehicle because he’s on the job 24/7.

He goes to the supermarket and has to chat with citizens who block his way to the bananas and oranges to ask him why it’s so scary to walk downtown or  how come Wilkes-Barre has become one of the drug capitals of Luzerne County, if not the state?

When he’s in church praying for them to leave him alone, yet another city resident catches up with him to ask if there will ever be another New Year’s Eve celebration on Public Square or whether stores will one day outnumber bars in the area.  It’s all part of the job to answer those queries.

THEN, J.J. Murphy, the mayor’s former BFF and co-conspirator in turning the city’s parking assets over to a private entity, drops the bombshell that Mayor Tom Leighton only worked three hours a day because he had a real estate business to run.

Murphy sued Radnor Township officials because they had the gall not to hire him.  J.J. argued  that he didn’t get the job because of his military obligations, which violated federal law.  Township officials countered he didn’t get the job over concerns he overstated his role in saving Wilkes-Barre from financial ruin while serving as its administrator as opposed to what the mayor accomplished.  That’s what the Delaware County Daily Times reported.

Oh yeah, Radnor!

That’s when J.J. testified during his Philadelphia court  case that the mayor only worked three hours a day, the paper reported.  But, apparently realizing that his testimony might find its way back to Wilkes-Barre – which it did – J.J. said what he meant was that the mayor, after putting in three hours at City Hall, ”went out and conducted city business, such as cutting ribbons.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s right for Mayor Leighton to receive an $82,309 salary to spend a lot of time cutting ribbons.  Can’t a trained monkey do that?

Anyway, poor J.J. lost his civil suit, but he nonetheless put on a happy face, saying he was vindicated.  “This case was never about the money. It was proving what I have been saying for almost five years.  I was discriminated against and denied a fair shot at a key position because of my military obligations.”

Wait a minute, wasn’t J.J. seeking back pay and damages plus reinstatement to a job he never had in the first place?  It seems the only damages he received were further ones to his reputation.  The jury did agree that part of the reason he didn’t get the job was due to his likely time away to serve his country.

The other reason was that Radnor Township may have dodged a bullet.  Township officials argued that candidate Murphy may have exaggerated his role in saving Wilkes-Barre. However, if township officials wanted overstatement, they needed to look no further than the $300 per hour J.J. Murphy charged the Wilkes-Barre City Parking Authority for his expertise as a consultant.

As for Mayor Leighton, Friday was not a good news day for him.  Not only  was he forced to address his former pal’s embarrassing charges that he only worked a mere three hours a day in City Hall, apparently leaving all the heavy-lifting to J.J., but The Times Leader also had another unflattering headline that said, “W-B Mayor Mum on Gas Usage.”

Regarding the former, Leighton said, ’The position of Mayor is a full-time job, and I have fulfilled this commitment as I enter the 11th year of my third term.”  Now we need to ask, what’s his definition of commitment because ours isn’t a three-hour work day, if that was indeed the case?

Gasgate is another story.

The TL phoned the mayor to ask him the reasonable questions of why he hasn’t submitted monthly mileage reports lately and whether, by not doing so, he’s saving the city money.

Mum’s the word, TL.

Meanwhile, Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis said it’s taking her longer than expected – two years and counting – to get to the bottom of the missing tens of thousands of gallons of public fuel because of the city’s “complete lack of policies, procedures, documentation, checks and balances, accounting and accountability regarding the use of gas by city employees and officials.”

Is that all?

C’mon, Steph, give the mayor a break.  If you didn’t know it then, you certainly should now, thanks to J.J. and the Delaware County Daily Times. The mayor is a very busy man, attending all those ribbon cutting ceremonies.

But come to think of it, if there is any truth to J.J.s assertion that the mayor has sometimes worked part time while receiving a full-time salary, maybe it’s time to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the installation of a new City Hall time clock.

- Betty Roccograndi

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 Posted by at 6:27 pm
Mar 012014
 

The only thing the U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t do this week to accomodate admitted criminal Robert Mericle was issue him a public apology for dragging him into this “Kids for Cash” mess in the first place.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Peter Smith implied that Mericle may have violated the terms of his plea agreement and so scheduled a hearing.  Now his office and Mericle have come to a secret resolution, whereby it’s okay with prosecutors if Mericle serves his sentence in the comforts of his own mansion.

Let’s face it, no one expected that the powerful and connected Mericle, KOZ king and sugar daddy to elected officials, would spend time in prison just because he secretly paid two county judges $2 million for helping him land a cushy contract.  And so what that he did so through a third party to further conceal that transaction.

We’re still left wondering why a so-called legitimate “finder’s fee” wasn’t paid directly to the judges on a Mericle Construction company check.   But it wasn’t, so Mericle was charged - not for being part of that clandestine payment scheme – but for witholding that little tidbit of information when the feds questioned him.

Wonder how the rest of us might fare if we lied to federal prosecutors investigating racketeering activity.

But for Mr. Mericle, all’s well that ends well.  He originally faced four to 10 months in prison, per federal guidelines.  Then in 2011, federal prosecutors called for him to spend 12 to 18 months locked up.

Now they’re okay with  six to 12 months of whatever.  On Monday, federal officials declared that “the United States” will not declare that Mericle breached his plea agreement and will recommend a minimum sentence.  Where?  It doesn’t matter to them.  The Times Leader reported that prosecutors will make no recommendations as to where.

We have an idea that fits right in with this puzzling turn of events.  Let Rob serve his sentence in Disneyland with his family, get him out of the public spotlight for awhile and let everything blow over.

What will not blow over; however, is public cynicism that in this county, state and country, it’s not what you know or what you did, it’s who you know and how much money you have.

Make no mistake here.  Robert Mericle was a central player in this racketeering case, which brought down two county judges on the take, even though he was only charged with a rather minor offense.  Who offers an outrageous fee of $2 million for a contract with seemingly little if any competition for it?  Mericle, with his reputation and expertise, surely could have gotten that contract on his own. But if Mark Ciavarella and Michel Conahan didn’t close the county-owned juvenile detention center, there would have been no opening for the construction of privately-owned ones, and Mericle wouldn’t have made who knows how many millions of dollars building them.

Which leads us to ask, now with his sentencing on the horizon, did Robert Mericle call in some favors from higher ups?  Did his lawyers threaten to file a civil suit against the government for prosecutorial misconduct?  Do the feds possibly fear a wealthy developer who has greased more palms than a short order cook does frying pans?

Or perhaps Mericle offered to build a new, state-of-the-art headquarters for U.S. Attorney Smith, on the house, of course.  Hey, he and/or his minions made a similar offer to another area pay-to play player, former state senator  Raphael Musto for his influence in Harrisburg to further enrich Mr. Mericle.

No one can blame anyone for thinking the worst here.  After all, Robert Mericle dug up chump change, $17.5 million, to make those “kids” go away and drop their lawsuits against him.

The public has a right to know what transpired here, not a no comment at this time, which is what Smith’s office spokeswoman Amanda L. Endy told The Times Leader.

When, then? And where is head honcho U.S. Attorney Peter Smith, who led the charge in the “Kids for Cash” racketeering case?  His assistant Michael A. Consiglio was the one who signed the new plea agreement, which cuts Mericle some slack.

But hold on to your hats because  it may be a little premature for Mericle to be popping open a bottle of champagne.

On April 25, he faces U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik, who informed Mr. Mericle, that, ”The court is not completely bound by the plea agreement, you understand?”

Mericle surely must remember how his buddy Ciavarella, who is starring nationwide in the explosive documentary “Kids for Cash,” fared before Judge Kosik.  Ciavarella ended up with about 20 more years in prison after he threw the dice and opted for a jury trial after Kosik rejected his original plea agreement.

Judge Kosik will also decide whether to make public letters some people wrote on Mericle’s behalf.  His lawyers expressed concern that some of the letters could reveal sensitive, personal information.  Then why did he allow them, especially knowing that the media in the past has rightfully demanded to know who wrote letters asking for leniency for other area officials facing sentencing for crimes of corruption?

No, those letters need to be released.  For all we know, there’s one tucked in there from President Barack Obama, or Attorney General Eric Holder or Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis.

Although it’s unlikely Ms. Salavantis took the time to pen a letter.  She’s far too busy, having spent more than two years and still trying to find out what happened to all those gallons of missing fuel in Wilkes-Barre.

- Betty Roccograndi

 

 

 

 

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 Posted by at 5:43 pm