Apr 182014

The sky is falling; the sky is falling.

Please, Judge Kosik, make it stop.  There are jobs and children’s futures on the line, and economic development as we know it will grind to a  halt if you sentence Robert Mericle to prison.

So say Mr. Mericle’s employees in letters begging Judge Kosik to let their boss walk for his role in the infamous “Kids for Cash” scandal.  He made a mistake, and he’s sorry, said Austin Burke, former president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.

A mistake?  He mistakenly paid two sitting judges $2  million for helping him land a lucrative contract to build two juvenile detention centers?  That is not a mistake.  It’s yet another example of greasing the palms of an elected official to enrich oneself.

But let’s agree with Mr. Burke for a minute that Mericle made a mistake.  Then we could argue that former Luzerne County judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan also made a mistake when they took Mericle’s millions.  And I’m betting they’re sorry too, now that they’re spending a good part of the rest of their lives in prison.

One employee begged Judge Kosik to show mercy, stating that children’s futures depend on the jobs their parents have with Mericle.  His employees’ mortgages and transportation do too, he said.

Judge Kosik, do you really want to be known as a children hater and judge who puts people out on the street?

Mericle’s chief financial officer said she and her colleagues fear that the business and its projects could be jeopardized if Mericle is unable to oversee its operations because he is in prison.  And then driving her message - warning – home, she said if her boss is imprisoned, construction likely would be suspended and suggested that the financial impact on Mericle Commercial Real Estate Services could extend to the broader community.

In six months?  That’s the maximum sentence even federal prosecutors are requesting, and they’re actually okay with Mericle serving his sentence in comfy home confinement or probation, which, of course, would be an inconvenience, not  a punishment. Furthermore,  in a company as large as Mericle’s, are we expected to believe that he has no back-ups, no managers to cover for him if he’s away?  Doesn’t he ever go on vacation?

The news media repeatedly refer to the “Kids for Cash” scandal as a $2.8 million kickback scheme.  Is everyone forgetting that $2 million of that amount was what Mericle gave to Ciavarella and Conahan and in return likely made millions more in profits?

And one needs to ask why this beneficent man, who simply  made “a mistake,” so willingly paid the “kids” here more than $17 million to drop their expected lawsuits against him?   That was one costly mistake.

After reading some of the letters submitted to the judge, which our local newspapers published, there’s little doubt that Robert Mericle is a loving, compassionate, hard-working, caring, generous man, who, without thinking twice, helps out those in need as well as his community.

He’s also made a practice of slipping elected and appointed officials cash and gifts for helping him obtain exorbitant tax breaks and grants from public money.  But when it became necessary to save himself, he brought down some of those very same officials.

It’s not the great guy portrayed in all those letters who faces prison time.

The one who does is the Robert Mericle who secretly paid two sitting judges a whopping $2 million, made yet another financial killing in the process and left behind a lot of collateral damage.

And it’s this Robert Mericle who deserves, not accolades, but certainly something more than home confinement or probation.

Otherwise, we’ll all just go on believing that it’s not what you  know;  it’s who you know.  It’s not what you do, it’s your money that talks.

And that some people really are above the law.

- Betty Roccograndi

 Posted by at 4:01 pm
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

 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


 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


 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


 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

 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





 Posted by at 5:43 pm
Feb 162014

It was a nifty catch phrase, and it stuck like super glue.  ”Kids for Cash.”  But was it really?

Facing 28 years in prison, corrupt former Luzerne County judge, Mark Ciavarella never wavered in his contention that this was not a kids for cash case.

Trust me, I’m no fan of this disgraceful scourge on the judicial system and enemy of our rightful expectation for fairness and impartiality in the courts, but I tend to agree with him here.

Kids for cash conjures up images of Ciavarella rounding up one juvenile delinquent after another, checking them into the privately-owned PA Child Care center and then waiting for his commission checks to arrive at the courthouse.

The truth is Ciavarella and the detestable kingpin of this scandal Michael Conahan already made their killing when pay-to-play developer Robert Mericle rewarded them with $2 million for helping him land the contract to build two privately-owned juvenile detention centers.  Did the county need a new center?  No, it did not.  The state Department of Public Welfare did  not condemn our facility as unfit for human habitation.  Conahan did that because he and Ciavarella had a grand plan to line their pockets.

Then to add insult to injury, former county commissioners Greg Skrepenak and Todd Vonderheid rammed through a 20-year, $58-million lease  with PA Child Care, one of the centers Mericle built.  State officials urged them to wait until the completion of an audit report with warnings that this company had previously overcharged the county.  A reasonable request for sure, but for some mysterious reason, Skrepenak and Vonderheid, an admitted long-time friend of Mericle’s,  couldn’t wait and locked the county into an unprecedented lengthy, costly and, arguably, unnecessary, lease.

That one-sided deal did not require that PA Child Care needed to be filled to capacity for the owners to get their rent.  In addition, the pact stipulated that the county was responsible for most of the repairs and maintenance, including snow removal and lawn care, for a building it didn’t  even own.

A sweetheart deal to say the least for the center’s owners, crooked former Hazleton attorney, Robert Powell, who paid off the judges and then brazenly claimed they extorted him, and his politically-connected partner Gregory Zappala, a son of the former chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

How Skrepenak and Vonderheid skated away unscathed after locking the county into this polluted pact, which surely didn’t benefit county taxpayers, is beyond me.  If only film producer Robert May would have grilled them for his documentary, “Kids for Cash,” maybe we’d have some answers.

Based on all of that, kids for cash, I believe, is a misnomer.  Aside from the windfall from Mericle and Powell, no evidence surfaced afterwards that Ciavarella received additional cash payments every time he committed a juvenile to detention.

And thanks to Skrepenak and Vonderheid, Powell and his partner were already collecting enviable rents from Luzerne County, initially $2.9 million a year.

This was an abhorrent plot all right, but it was more a case of unnecessarily closing a county facility and building privately-owned ones so a scheming quartet could make a fortune.  I do not believe it was a case whereby kids were sold into slavery, as radio talk show host Steve Corbett puts it.

Even before the new centers were built, Ciavarella ruled his courtroom with an iron fist, doling out punishments that did not fit some of the crimes, actually allowing these vulnerable and scared teens to be handcuffed and shackled like dangerous criminals, as their helpless, horrified parents watched, and, incredibly, sealing their  fates without insisting they be represented by legal counsel.

The bottom line, though, is that Ciavarella was not charged with the horrendous way he mistreated these “kids,”  or, if  you will, for exchanging kids for cash.  He wanted to scare the living daylights out of them and he did, big time. In some circles, his excessive tactics were applauded.

This scandal was rooted in greed and corruption and a colossal abuse of power, involving powerful judges on the take, a savvy developer, a corrupt lawyer, and likely others who escaped indictments.  With a heavy-handed judge like Mark Ciavarella, these juvenile delinquents were going away somewhere.

But just as surely as money is the root of all evil, this diabolical scheme was sure to unravel, and it did, once prosecutors uncovered and tried - not kids for cash - but a $2.8 million kickback/racketeering case concocted in our very own halls of justice.

- Betty Roccograndi

 Posted by at 6:38 pm
Feb 142014

Obviously, Attorney Shelley Centini racked up some hefty legal fees representing Hugo Selenski.  It’s obvious, because the powers that be at the Keystone Kourthouse won’t tell us the total.

Taxpayers paid those legal bills, yet we have to beg to find out the amount.

Luzerne County Judge Fred Pierantoni has refused to release the records.  Or to put it more nicely, Centini’s payments “have been ordered sealed by the Honorable Fred Pierantoni who is presently presiding over the case,” said the county’s No-Right-To-Know officer, Shannon Crake in an e-mail to The Times Leader.  Unless he has a good reason for withholding public information from the public, there is nothing honorable about his honor’s actions.

Court Administrator Michael Shucosky told The Citizens’ Voice, “People want to know how much she got.  I don’t how much she got by the way.”  What do I look like, the court administrator or somethin’?

Crake, the no-right-to-know official, surmised that, “The judge apparently sealed them in their entirety in order to prevent defense strategy from being divulged.”

Ohhh, now we get it.  Centini’s billings may have included line items such as:

Interview with hardware store manager, who says he did not sell any shovels to Hugo which could have been used for burying bodies on his property.  Four hours:  $700.

Worked on alibi that Hugo was researching novel uses for tying together bed sheets when pharmacist Michael Kerkowski and his girlfriend Tammy Fassett were allegedly found underneath his yard.  7.25 hours:  $1,525.22.

Called my client to say, hello, and ask how he’s holding up.  .10 hours.  $42.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

So, Judge, if that is indeed  your reasoning for telling taxpayers it is none of their business how much they paid to Ms. Centini, Attorney Edward Rymsza and private investigator James Sulima, then just tell us how many hours they said they worked and how much it cost us per hour.

The TL tells us that the original order you signed in 2012 appointing her as Hugo’s attorney said her hourly rate was $85 without benefits with a cap of $40,000, subject to further order of the court.  At that modest fee for a lawyer, she must have been desperate for the job and a starring role in the made-for-TV movie, which will inevitably be made.

But this begs the question, has Ms. Centini been charging more than $85-per-hour, with no such further court order?  Are we looking at another Angela Stevens case here?  Who can forget Attorney Stevens, who overcharged the county a reported $60,000 for, among other things, dropping off multiple bills in one trip and then charging the county for multiple trips for that one package?  Lucky for her, she had the good fortune to be working in Luzerne County, where such dubious bills are paid.

Another county judge, Tina Polachek-Gartley approved those bills without actually reviewing them.  She just took Stevens’ word for it that the bills were legit.

Could it be that Centini’s billings and subsequent payments could somehow prove embarrassing for the honorable Judge Pierantoni?  We won’t know that unless he unseals them.  Sorry, judge, but keeping those bills under lock and key to protect defense strategy is rather lame.

The TL reported on Thursday that “several law enforcement sources” believe Centini’s been paid between $150,000 and $200,000 for defending Selenski.  And that’s before a single juror has even been selected.  If that’s true, we’d like to see the court order giving  her a raise from $85 per hour with a cap of $40,000.

We’re talking about a lawyer who was just charged with intimidating prosecution witnesses and theft.  Did she turn in a bill for that, that is if she did do what prosecutors allege?  Just asking.  If she did, though, we demand a refund.

Centini’s law partner, Barry Dyller, husband of county Judge Lesa Gelb, came to her defense and expressed sadness for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for choosing ”to charge an innocent person.”

Would the Commonwealth actually do something so foolish?  If so, Attorney Dyller, shouldn’t be sad at all because he will undoubtedly file a civil suit on behalf of Ms. Centini, and then they both may be able to retire.

But for now, we urge Judge Pierantoni to unseal those billings.  We have a right to know what we paid for, especially to a lawyer who is now finding herself possibly on the wrong side of the law.

- Betty Roccograndi

 Posted by at 6:48 pm
Jan 312014

Who these days can say that a $3 million cut won’t impact operations?

Cool as a cucumber Luzerne County Transportation Authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish can, because as it turns out, the supposedly cash-strapped authority has a tidy nest egg of $7 million tucked away for a rainy day.

After determining that hordes of ghosts did not ride LCTA buses after all nor did senior citizens passed off as supernatural creatures, the state concluded that the authority was overpaid $2,143,337 over six years.

The state Department of Transportation announced Thursday it is withholding from the authority almost $2.7 million in operating funds and another $479,655 in capital improvement funding, our two local newspapers reported.

No problem!

Executive Director Strelish indicated Thursday there is no need to worry, that this will not disrupt bus or van service.

“We have ample funds to cover this,” Strelish told The Times Leader.  “We have $7 million in reserve.”


Well, if that’s the case, why have transportation authority officials gone before the county council crying the blues that if the county reduces its contribution, services could end for the area’s most vulnerable citizens.  Not be disrupted, mind you, end?

Meanwhile, the rest of us are facing an 8-percent county tax hike while a half-million dollars is budgeted for the apparently financially healthy transportation authority.

I’ll admit, county councilman, who is now vice-chairman, Edward Brominski sometimes acts a bit whacky, but he’s the one who blew the whistle that the authority’s buses may have been haunted.  And to show he’s dead serious, he told The Citizens’ Voice that even if it was his own  mother who took overpayments, she would have to pay a penalty.  Not sure, though, why he felt the need to bring mamma into this.

LCTA Chairman Sal Licata sang the praises of Strelish, saying if it weren’t for him “the $2 million hit would have devastated the authority.”

Who can argue with that?  We should all be so lucky to be able to sustain a ”$2 million hit” and continue on our merry way.  So thank you, Mr. Strelish.

Licata told the TL he supports Strelish ”100 percent” and pointed out that ridership numbers dropped when bus drivers had a grievance over some issue and were miffed at management but rose again when the issue was resolved.  Darn those union drivers.

But I’m confused here.  Is Licata saying that the bus drivers stopped counting  ghosts boarding buses to somehow get even with management?  Management said it never told them to do that.

Councilman Brominski said Ghostgate broke when disgruntled bus drivers stopped padding passenger counts after the authority installed cameras on the buses, which the drivers felt were invasive.  Mr. Licata insinuated that the drivers stopped inflating the numbers because the cameras would have caught them doing so.

The cameras would also have caught them texting and/or talking on their cell phones while driving, which, let’s face it, would put the ghosts and the seniors at risk.  So, YEAH, for the cameras.  Money well spent.

It’s still hard to know who is to blame for Ghostgate because when this story first broke, Executive Director Strelish said the bus drivers couldn’t count properly, so he did the right thing and sent them to bus rider counting school, which apparently solved the problem.  The ghosts simply disappeared.

So what about that $2,143,337 overpayment to the authority from the state?  Did that disappear too?  How was it spent, we’d like to know?

And if the authority ripped off the state, did it also rip off the county?  Was the county’s contribution impacted by the imaginary bus riders?

Considering it has a considerable surplus, maybe, if we’re lucky, the authority will cut the county a break and allow it to forgo making a contribution so that looming 8-percent tax hike will also disappear.  Taxpayers need the savings more than the authority apparently does.

Now we have to wonder what else is down the road.  Will anyone  actually be held accountable for cooking the books if that’s what they did?

And regarding that $7 million nest egg?  Normally, one would conclude that this authority must be under great management to have that much money saved.

But then again, one would have to conclude that there is no such thing as ghosts.  And, now we all know, that for a while there, there were.

-  Betty Roccograndi

 Posted by at 1:51 pm