Thursday, December 13, 2012

Under his skin

Man, did get under the skin of Uniontown police chief Jason Cox, with its Dec. 7 editorial “Shame on mayor,” which you can read it its entirely here:
The newspaper took Mayor Ed Fike to task – and rightfully so – for his unilateral imposition of a two-minute speaking limit for council member to address, of all things, the city’s 2013 budget. In so doing, it described as “heavy handed” Cox’s intervention as a lawman when councilman Gary Gearing proceeded to exceed Fike’s two-minute rule with his comment.
Said the newspaper: “Suggesting that council members have a time limit is one thing, having the chief of police step in and play time cop is another thing altogether. Need we remind Fike that being mayor is not the same as being a dictator. And Cox isn’t Fike’s personal servant. Cox works for all the residents of Uniontown, including Gearing. He’s supposed to dispense justice evenhandedly not siding with one public official over another one.”
It would be ridiculous to limit members of the public to two minutes of speaking time, let alone a duly elected member of council. Like Gearing or not, regardless of his motives or the validity of his comments, he has a right to be heard. The public will decide if his comments have merit, if he’s merely grandstanding, or if he’s a candidate for the loony bin. But it’s not up to Fike to arbitrarily and severely limit how much he can say, or how many questions he may ask.
It is impossible for any member of council to address something as complicated and far-reaching as a city budget, in less time that it takes to hear your favorite song on the radio.
Enter police chief Cox, who submitted his own rebuttal commentary, “Police chief defends actions at meeting,” Dec. 7 (we couldn’t find it online, by the way, which leads us to wonder if that’s because it prominently took aim at editor Mark O’Keefe).
Cox bristled at the notion that anyone would imply that he is a “heavy-handed time cop” or a “personal servant” of Fike. A main bone of Cox’s contention is that O’Keefe, whom he portrays as the author of the editorial, wasn’t even at the meeting to view firsthand what transpired.
Well, O’Keefe wasn’t in Dallas when Oswald shot JFK, either – but that doesn’t mean he can’t formulate an opinion on the assassination of President Kennedy.
Cox claimed to have been at the meeting as a department head, one who it just so happens does not leave his badge or his authority at the door when the meeting begins. He said he works directly under the mayor, and was only fulfilling Fike’s directive to bring order to the situation.
If his Marshall Matt Dillon skills were necessary to defuse a volatile situation, we’d like to know why Gearing wasn’t charged with any crime. Is speaking more than two minutes at a public meeting something that could land a councilman in the hoosgow? Was Gearing disturbing the peace? Making terroristic threats? Engaging in disorderly conduct?
Cox may have just been doing his job and following the boss’s orders, and we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that count. But that does nothing to alter the point of the editorial, which is that it doesn’t look good when one elected official tries to muzzle another, or when the police chief gets involved as enforcer.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Rumor quashing

Fayette County residents can take comfort in knowing that the Pennsylvania state police, the county’s Drug Task Force and district attorney Jack Heneks Jr. are bringing their considerable crime-fighting resources to bear on what everyone agrees is a top problem.

Tracking down rumors on the Internet.

Yep, you heard right. According to the lead story in the Nov. 20 Herald-Standard (“Vernon complaint leads to investigation”), Fayette County Common Pleas Judge Nancy D. Vernon has filed a harassment complaint regarding allegations being made over social media.

State police Trooper James Garlick is out to “find the genesis” of this online chatter, according to the story.

DA Heneks had this to say: “We’re trying to get to the bottom of these rumors because they are certainly untrue and malicious in nature … We’re concerned that this (the rumors) could affect the integrity of the court system.”

Missing from this story is any mention of exactly what crimes someone might be charged with. That’s a pretty basic – and easy – question to ask, but we are talking Herald-Standard Version 2012 here. We’ve never heard of anyone being arraigned for spreading rumors – or even for starting one.

And we are baffled at why the county’s Drug Task Force is even remotely involved in something like this – unless someone suspects that the culprits are spreading rumors after getting high. That’s another good – and obvious – question to ask.

Also missing from this story is any indication of what these rumors involve. Surely, if Vernon is upset enough to file a police complaint, and if the state police and district attorney swing into action when that happens, it couldn’t be too hard for a reporter to dig up what’s getting under everyone’s skin.

Especially when Heneks says: “I’m alarmed at the multiplicity of those unfounded reports.” If there is such multiplicity, and it’s easily available on the Internet, a good reporter would have no qualms about making it part of the story. The question everyone should be asking is why didn’t that happen?

We don’t blame Vernon one bit for wanting to strike back against her critics, especially those who are allegedly making untrue statements that impune her reputation. But many, many people (and politicians) have suffered the same fate, particularly on a certain community bulletin board known for name-calling, rumor and innuendo.

The resources of the state police and the district attorney – and even the Drug Task Force – should not be deployed only if a judge lodges a complaint. So if you think you have also been the victim of malicious rumors on social media, please call Trooper Garlick at 724-439-7111, or DA Heneks at 724-430-1245. They should gladly give you the same investigatory help as they are giving Vernon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cat got your tongue?

Today’s news story regarding the latest twist in the David Munchinski saga raises two interesting questions that everyone should take notice of.

One: Why does continue to fail to name the "prosecutors" whose actions have been chastised by the appeals courts – and whose actions are at the heart of the appeal that sprung Munchinski from death row after 25 years?

Everyone at the paper knows who these two "prosecutors" are. Their names are as integral to any telling of the story as those of Munchinski, the late Leon Scaglione who was also convicted of the murders, and the two men they were sent to prison for allegedly murdering in 1977, James P. Alford and Raymond P. Gierke. You can read the full story here, and see there is no mention of the identify of these "prosecutors" --

Why is so skittish about doing its job, and naming these particular names? All those folks who have called the paper over the years, asking that their names be withheld from stories or crime reports, and have been told that this wasn’t the way business is done, now have reason to ask why the paper is playing favorites.

Editor Mark O’Keefe should be asked to explain why these names, so crucial to the telling of this particular story, continue to be left out of news stories regarding Munchinski. The overturning of Munchinski’s conviction is big stuff – and the reasons for it being overturned are even bigger stuff, because they strike at the heart of the operation of the Fayette County legal system.

The same paper that, in the most recent example that comes to mind, can’t find enough times to mention the names of Beverly Beal, Angela Zimmerlink and Sonya Over in a politically motivated flap over a folder left at a restaurant – a case in which no criminal charges have been filed, and probably never will – can’t find the courage to apply the same standard to the key players in the Munchinski prosecution?

Two: For all those who are wringing their hands over the cost of lawsuits filed in Fayette County, how much money do you think Munchinski is going to end up with? If the attorney general declines to retry him, or it does and he prevails, does anyone doubt for a second that he won’t sue the county for, among other things, wrongful prosecution? How many millions might he get for being locked up for 25 years?

We see nothing that any county solicitor – including Ken Burkely, who is currently immersed in developing an anti-litigation strategy – can do to prevent that case from hitting the county. If you think the county liability insurance premium is high today, you need to be reminded of the famous words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive:

"B-B-B-Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!"

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Muzzles, please

We’re not averse to dishing out praise to when it’s warranted, so we highly recommend that everyone read Sunday’s editorial, "Troubling – Is communication policy really needed?"

The paper has some real concerns – as should you – with the desire of Fayette County commissioners Al Ambrosini and Vince Zapotosky to funnel official county comment through the county’s chief clerk (who happens to be former county government reporter Amy Revak).

We’ll let the first three paragraphs of the editorial speak for themselves:

World War II veteran Ralph Mazza compares the Fayette County Commissioners’ new communication policy to the Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine back in the Nazi days of the 1940s.

While we think Mazza may be reaching a bit on this comparison, there’s no doubt that the commissioners’ new policy is a bit troubling and could well be the first step on a very slippery slope.

In a 2-1 vote, the commission agreed to update its outside communication policy to have only the three commissioners "make public comments on policy issues or activities involving the county."

(We love Ralph Mazza, by the way. He’s got more moxie than most people half his age.)

On this issue, (perhaps grudgingly) even agrees with Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, who provided the lone vote against this policy. Zimmerlink has vowed to continue dealing with the media and public on her own, and the paper says it "couldn’t agree more with her stance."

That’s because anyone who has followed government for more than an hour knows that rarely are things unanimous. No one "official" position can cover a dissenting or alternate view – and any elected or appointed official who would abrogate his or her right to speak out on any issue or activity, at any time, is doing the public a tremendous disservice.

More worrisome, though, is the potential chilling effect that such a policy could (and likely will) have on county department heads and other employees. is surely aware that its reporters can learn a lot by talking to those who work in courthouse offices other than the one occupied by the commissioners.

With this new policy in effect, what’s going to happen when Reporter A drops by the office of Department Head B, to get some background on Subject C? Will the reporter be told to funnel his or her request to the chief clerk, so the answers to any questions can be filtered and formulated into the county’s "official" policy?

We’re betting that’s exactly what will happen. This new policy may even make county department heads and employees reluctant to talk to reporters at all. If you worked for the county now, would you want to be the one with a reporter in your office asking questions?

Zapotosky, according to Sunday’s editorial, supports the new policy because, "It keeps the commissioners on the same page as the department head, and that the statement (issued) is formulated not just by the commissioners but also by the department head. And, that everyone is in agreement that it is the position of the county."

Before anyone swallows that philosophical pill, they should be aware of one thing: County department heads are generally much more knowledgeable about the departments that they run, and what goes on in them, than are county commissioners. If a commissioner wants to be on the same page as a department head, can’t he or she pick up the phone, send an email, or ask for a face-to-face meeting?

We would bet that any reporter or member of the public would get a faster, more thorough, more honest and more accurate answer from a department head than from a line of communication running through Revak, Zapotosky and Ambrosini.

A bigger problem, of course, will be who defines "the position of the county." If there is disagreement among the three commissioners, do they draw straws to decide what will be the official position?

If there is disagreement between the commissioners and a department head, does the commissioner point of view trump that of the employee, just because of the hierarchy involved?

The commissioners and department head certainly can’t vote on the matter, because that could be construed as a violation of the Sunshine Law.

Most department heads are acutely aware that the commissioners are their bosses, and as such are likely to be very careful in what they say for publication anyway. We have yet to read a story with the headline, "Department head calls commissioner decision stupid," even though many have probably had that thought through the years.

The Tribune-Review also weighed in on this new communication policy, and they are also among its critics:

We’d like to see someone call around to find out how other counties in the area handle communications, and if they too place such a great emphasis on formulating an "official" county position.

We’re backing the position of, the Tribune-Review and Zimmerlink on this one.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Full disclosure, Part II

Fayette County commissioner Vince Zapotosky's comments about "full disclosure" at last week's commission meeting had us thinking this weekend about that concept.

Zapotosky tooted his "full disclosure" horn regarding a meeting appearance by Leonard Maharowki, a private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority. Maharowski clearly came to the meeting to put fellow commissioner Angela Zimmerlink on the spot, in the housing authority's never-ending quest to turn "Packetgate" -- or should we call it "Restaurantgate"? -- into a political liability for its own board member Beverly Beal, as well as for Zimmerlink.

Exactly what the housing autthority expects Maharowky to uncover that the Pennsylvania State Police have not, or cannot, remains to be seen.

But if Zapotosky is an ardent devotee of "full disclosure," there are better places for him to toot his horn.

The county commissioners appoint the five board members of the Fayette County Housing Authority. Beal, as one of those board members, is trying to shake loose information on how much taxpayer money the authority has paid to the Pittsburgh law firm of Cohen & Grigsby. She believes that it is in excess of $500,000 -- but her fellow board members are making her jump through hoops to get access.

Where has Zapotosky uttered one word about "full disclosure" in the Beal matter? How does he -- and how do his fellow commissioners -- feel about the other four housing authority board members' censure of Beal?

Those four board members approved a motion that said this of Beal:
"She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussing an ongoing federal case."

Shouldn't "full disclosure" include some specifics to back up these charges? What "ongoing litigation" has Beal discussed, and with whom? Where is the proof of this? Who are the accusers? None of these facts have ever been revealed, at least to the public.

Same thing for the "ongoing federal case." Who does the housing authority believe Beal has been talking to, and where is their proof of it? Who provided this proof? If Beal has been talking to someone from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or from the FBI, is that something worthy of censure?

In the interest of "full disclosure," how does Zapotosky feel about the housing authority authorizing (and probably paying) Maharowski to come to last week's commission meeting, to give the same report that had previously been put forth at a housing authority meeting?

Although the five housing authority board members, once appointed, act autonomously (at least in theory), the fact remains that they are installed by the county commissioners -- and it is the county commissioners who ultimately bear responsibility for their actions.

In the interest of "full disclosure," how do Zapotosky and his fellow commissioners feel about the housing authority's use of taxpayer money to pay a private investigator? That's a rare and odd circumstance, isn't it? The county of Fayette has been beset with lawsuits over the years -- so many, in fact, that the current chief solicitor is only taking instruction from commission chairman Al Ambrosini, so he can concentrate on drawing up and implementing litigation-reduction strategy.

Yet we don't recall the commissioners ever hiring -- or feeling the need to hire -- a private investigator to layer on top of any police or detective action. Even when there have been reported thefts of money from offices inside the courthouse that went unsolved, no one fett the need to shell out taxpayer money for a private investigator.

We're all for "full disclosure." But its application shouldn't be selective, or limited to one private investigator's attempt to question one commissioner at a public meeting. Someone should start asking the county commissioners whether they support all that is going on at the housing authority. Finding out how they feel would constitute more of the "full disclosure" that Zapotosky stands for.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Full disclosure of what?

Somehow, Fayette County commissioner Vince Zapotosky believes that the appearance of private investigator Leonard Maharowski at Tuesday's meeting, to recite the same supposed findings already publicized at the Aug. 9 meeting of the Fayette County Housing Authority, an appearance made at the direction of those at the housing authority not named Beverly Beal, constitutes "full disclosure" of county activities.
We see it as the use of taxpayer money to carry out character assassination on Beal and her friend, Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink. Seriously, when is the last time ANY public agency in Fayette County felt the need to hire a private investigator to snoop around regarding the activities of a board member (Beal) and her friends? We challenge Zapotosky -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to come up with the answer. (We also think it would be a great idea for Zapotosky or anyone else to ask the housing authority chieftains and Maharowski if the Beal matter is the first time they've employed his services.)
But at Tuesday's commission meeting, where Ralph Mazza of Vanderbilt -- a bona fide World War II veteran -- invoked the name of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in describing the desire of Zapotosky and Commission chairman Al Ambrosini to utilize a public relations person, Zapotosky kept the Nazi references flowing when audience members objected to Maharowski addressing the commissioners.
“You just got done talking about Joseph Goebbels,” Zapotosky said. “You can’t have it both ways. Either full disclosure, or not. No Joseph Goebbels. No Herman Goering. Full disclosure.”

The question we have to ask Zapotosky is: Full disclosure of what?
Of the housing authority's use of money that's supposed to go toward housing poor people for hiring Maharowski to perform work above and beyond that of the Pennsylvania State Police?
Of the housing authority's willingness to instruct Maharowski to attend the commissioners' meeting for a second bite at the publicity apple, in what thus far shapes up as a case long on innuendo and short on evidence of criminal activity? (Just who are these three restaurant waitresses who allegedly saw Beal, Zimmerlink and Sonya Over having lunch, anyway? If Zapotosky believes in "full disclosure," shouldn't their names be the first to roll off Maharowski's tongue?)
Of an obvious attempt to discredit Zimmerlink by having a hired gun show up at one of her meetings?
We wonder how Zapotosky would react if a private investigator hired by someone else showed up at a commission meeting to lob an innuendo bomb his way.
If someone said, "I'm Ben Matlock, the private investigator hired to find out what you ever did to 'get to the bottom' of what happened at Fayette County Children and Youth Services, back when two children died. Would you kindly step over here for a private meeting with me, Commissioner Zapotosky?"
We're sure his answer would be, "Absolutely. I believe in full disclosure, and while some people might think you're here just to embarrass or humiliate me, or score political points, I'll gladly talk to you. Can we please adjourn the meeting for a while, so I can chat with this nice gentleman?"
Or if someone said, "I'm Columbo, the private investigator hired by Highlands Hospital to find out exactly what the commissioners knew -- and when they knew it -- about the new inpatient psychiatric contract with Uniontown Hospital. Commissioner Zapotosky, would you let me interview you?"
We're sure Zapotosky would reply, "In the name of full disclosure, I'll meet with you any time, any where."
And our favorite scenario: “Hi there, Commissioner Zapotosky, my name is Barnaby Jones. I’m investigating Commissioner Zimmerlink’s allegation that in the prior administration you conspired to keep her out of county decision-making. I’d very much like to talk to you privately about this, but I came to a public meeting to make that request. OK with you?”
Do you envision Zapotosky saying, “No problem, Mr. Jones. I’ll go against the advice of the county’s legal counsel and speak to you, because I’m all for full disclosure.”
In the parlance of Fayette County politics, what happened at Tuesday's Fayette County commission meeting was nothing but a good, old-fashioned dog-and-pony show. It's the type of thing that usually happens in the months leading up to an election.
Maybe somebody has decided to get an early start.

Yesterday's meeting

It's rhetorical question time:
If you were getting a divorce, and a private investigator hired by the other side -- i.e., your estranged spouse's attorney -- showed up at your place of employment, wanting to meet with you privately to ask questions, what would you do?
Unless you were a complete buffoon, you would realize that this private investigator has no real legal authority or power, that he is bought and paid for by your adversary, and that he certainly isn't out to do you any favors. And you would promptly show him the door.
So when
Leonard Maharowski, the private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority, walked through the doors at yesterday's Fayette County commission meeting, did you not think that Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink instantly knew what was coming her way?
According to the Tribune-Review, Maharowski gave a report similar to the one he delivered to the housing authority board on Aug. 9, involving his so-called probe into a folder left behind at a restaurant where Zimmerlink had joined bousing authority board member Beverly Beal and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over for lunch on May 30.
(As we recall, news stories indicated that "Maharowski, P.I." presented a two-page preliminary report on Aug 9, so we hope he's made progress and perhaps there are now three pages.)

You can read the Trib story here:
It has now been nearly three months since the other side starting making poltiical hay over this particular lunch meeting. The state police have investigated and thus far turned up nothing. District Attorney Jack Heneks keeps saying the matter is still under investigation. Now, we have Maharowski giving the same report at multiple public meetings.
The question everyone should be asking is, "Why?" (We're also curious to know if housing authority funds were used to pay Maharowski to give the same report at a second public meeting. We know Beal would like to know that, too, but she's having a dickens of a time getting full disclosure.)
The longer this drags on, with no tangible result one way or the other, the more we are inclined to side with Zimmerlink's assessment, as published in yesterday's Trib: "To imply there was criminal activity because I went to lunch with two people there, it’s the dark side of the political machine coming out in Fayette County," Zimmerlink said.
The state police and Heneks have an obligation to clear this up sooner rather than later. It appears to be an open-and-shut case, so why is it taking so long? If there's enough evidence to criminally charge Beal, or Zimmerlink or Over, or anyone at the housing authority for the release of a proprietary document, they should do that and get it over with. Or they should clear everyone's name by saying that nothing warrants criminal charges. Wouldn't they want that for themselves, if they were in the thick of this controversy?
Until either of those things happens, the charge of "playing politics" is the only one that appears to be sticking.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What is the difference?

Here in the patch, we're glad to see weigh in on the controversy involving Fayette County Commission chairman Al Ambrosini and his alleged role (or lack thereof) in Uniontown Hospital getting a piece of the Medicaid in-patient psychiatric services pie, which has ruffled the feathers of competitor Highlands Hospital.

Sunday's editorial, "Come clean: Time to substantiate or drop charges," can be read in its entirely here:

Editor Mark O'Keefe and Co. have assessed the situation thusly, regarding Ambrosini:

As happens all too often with Fayette County politics, he’s also become fair game for all sorts of personal attacks and innuendos. ...

Ambrosini was adamant that he had nothing to do with the contract and denied even talking to (county MR/MR director Lisa) Ferris about the contract. ...

(Highlands Hospital CEO Michelle) Cunningham must also either come forward now with proof that Ambrosini "pressured’’ Ferris or admit that she was wrong. It’s unfair to have Ambrosini linger under this cloud of suspicion and doubt, and it’s also a disservice for county residents to have them left in the dark about such an important matter involving the county’s top official.

We find it supremely interesting that in another controversy, the one involving Fayette County Housing Authority board member Beverly Beal, the same editorial logic and standards apparently do not apply.

The Beal flap involves a folder allegedly left behind at a local restaurant, which resulted in her fellow housing authority board members censuring Beal.

If recognizes that Ambrosini is fair game for "all sorts of personal attacks and innuendos," must the same standard not also apply to Beal's lunch companions, Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over? There has been no stronger innuendo than the one tying them to this restaurant folder -- yet has uttered not a peep in their defense.

If is willing to editorially recognize the fact that Ambrosini has "been adamant that he had nothing to do with the contract" and "denied even talking" to Ferris about it, should it not also accept Zimmerlink's position that she knew nothing about the restaurant folder? And should it not accept Beal's position that she did nothing wrong and the case against her is politically motivated?

And finally, if believes that someone should finally "come forward with proof," lest Ambrosini continue to "linger under this cloud of suspicion and doubt," should the newspaper not also call upon the state police and district attorney Jack Heneks to do the same regarding the police investigation into the restaurant packet?

We commend for not wanting to let Ambrosini twist in the wind, and for challenging his accuser(s) to either put up or shut up.

But the same standard should apply to the accuser(s) of Beal, Zimmerlink and Over.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Free speech -- sometimes

"I have a constitutional right to speak freely ... When I received this letter, I was shocked that she (Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink) would demand $25,000, but equally as shocked to censor my right to free speech, a right that brave men had fought and died for. I believe this demand for money is wrong and the public should be informed."
-- Harry Fike, chairman of the Fayette County Housing Authority board of directors, as quoted in "Zimmerlink seeks monetary restitution,", Aug. 5.

So Fike believes in: A. Free speech, and B. The public's right to be informed. Hmmm ...

"She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing on-going litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the Authority, as well as discussing an on-going Federal case."
-- Text of the Fayette County Housing Authority motion, supported by Fike, to censure fellow board member Beverly Beal.

Apparently, Beal's right to free speech isn't as important as Fike's. Or maybe those brave men who died for it said, with their last breaths, "Don't let the right to free speech apply to anyone named Beal. If they try to speak freely, censure them!"

"The law makes clear that certain types of documents are protected and thus not available for public review."
-- Taken from "Board responds to Beal's commentary,", July 29, a guest column submitted by Fike and three other housing authority board members, regarding Beal's quest to obtain information about payments to the Cohen & Grigsby law firm.

So Fike firmly believes that "the public should be informed" about a letter from Zimmerlink marked confidential, but concurrently believes that "certain types of documents ... are not available for public review" when it concerns how the housing authority spends tax money.

It is worth noting that just because the state's Right-to-Know Law contains several exemptions that permit a public agency to shield information from the public doesn't mean that the agency has to do that. It doesn't have to invoke one of the exceptions if it does not want to.

So when someone signs off on a commentary that says certain documents are "not available for public review," what they are really saying is, "We are choosing to invoke one of the exceptions, and keep that information from public view."

Beal believes that Cohen & Grigsby has been paid $500,000 by the housing authority. If that's true, we certainly hope that she is successful in finding out adequate details on how that money was spent. To that end, we hope she that in addition to refiling her information request using the Right-to-Know Law form (which she should have done in the first place) that she also seeks the information as a board member.

Beal may have to state the reason why she wants the access while wearing a board member's hat, thus meeting a condition laid down by the authority, but she may also get to see more complete information.

In the interim, we wonder why in the past few weeks the intrepid reporting staff of hasn't asked for the same information as Beal. It would take all of five minutes to fill out the form.

Simply put, no one needs to wait for Beal to shake this tree.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Semantics in play?

As part of its legal justification for stonewalling board member Beverly Beal's request for information regarding payments to a Pittsburgh law firm, the Fayette County Housing Authority is apparently relying on a state law that has us scratching our head.

Here is a passage from the most recent article ("Beal will not withdraw appeal to see housing authority records," July 26):

According to a state statute that governs non-profit corporations, members of such organizations must specify in a letter to that agency, why the review is necessary.

Our question is this: When did the Fayette County Housing Authority switch from being a public agency to being a non-profit corporation?

As a public agency, the housing authority is bound by the state Right-to-Know Law, which clearly prohibits them from asking a person the reason they want information.

If the housing authority is relying on a statute that governs non-profit corporations, and the housing authority is not a non-profit corporation, how can that particular statute apply?

Non-profit corporations have to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. It would be interesting to ask if the housing authority has done that for its entire operation, because the answer would provide a big clue as to whether it really is a non-profit corporation or not.

Some examples of non-profit corporations operating in Fayette County are organizations like Uniontown Hospital, Fay-Penn Economic Development, and the United Way.

We highly doubt that the Fayette County Housing Authority has morphed into a full-fledged non-profit corporation. Although it may have started one to operate the Heritage Apartments in downtown Uniontown (we seem to recall that being the case), unless the Pittsburgh law firm of Cohen & Grigsby is doing all of its housing authority work through that non-profit, the law being cited by the housing authority would not seem to apply.

Someone should probe this rationale a little further.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some questions

Now that Al Ambrosini is the only Fayette County commissioner empowered to give county solicitor Ken Burkley instruction, per a 2-1 vote this week, we got to thinking of some logical questions.

1. How come former solicitor Joe Ferens could juggle many different work assignments at one time, while simultaneously taking direction from and answering to all three commissioners, but Burkley apparently cannot do either?

Burkley, it is argued by Ambrosini, needs his plate cleared of all but one item, that of restructuring the county's solicitorship system to install a lawsuit-prevention posture. And this task is so important that he can't be bothered with anything else.

Yet for many, many years, Ferens oversaw all manner of thorny county legal issues, often at the same time. We don't recall anyone ever saying, "Joe needs to focus on just one thing," or, "Only I shall be the one to tell Joe what to do."

2. Why is commissioner Vince Zapotosky, who provided the second vote to make Ambrosini the point man in dealing with Burkley, so willing to give up his power as a county commissioner?

Zapotosky must be supremely confident in the Ambrosini-Burkley arrangement. Perhaps he is trying to keep the peace with his Democrat colleague, or just doesn't care to be involved. Maybe he is just too weak or worn out, politically or personally, to say no.

But it can be a dicey situation to turn over the keys to running one of the county's key offices to someone else. If you were a county commissioner, elected by the people to run county government, how would you feel if the guy sitting next to you asked you to take a back seat?

3. If endowing a single commissioner with the power to give instruction to a county office is such a good idea, why isn't it being replicated for all other county offices?

Commissioner A could be assigned offices D, E and F; Commissioner B could be assigned offices G, H and I; and Commissioner C could be assigned offices J, K and L.

We don't think there would be two votes for such a setup, which would mean Ambrosini and Zapotosky would be asked to give up a chunk of their power.

4. Finally, commissioner Angela Zimmerlink, who objected to giving Ambrosini the lone authority to tell Burkley what to do, has an ongoing lawsuit against Zapotosky and former commissioner Vince Vicites, alleging that they basically kept her from doing her job by freezing her out of county business and decision-making.

Wouldn't this week's vote, which basically strips Zimmerlink of the ability to have an equal say in dealing with the county solicitor, only serve to reinforce (if not prove) her point?

Is it not possible that this particular vote might end up as part of a lawsuit (new or ongoing) against the county -- the very thing that Burkley is tasked with preventing?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tightening the noose

Fresh off their joint decision to annoint Chairman Al Ambrosini as the only one who can give instruction to the county's chief solicitor, Fayette County commissioners Ambrosini and Vince Zapotosky are taking aim at imposing another restriction.

Now they want to attempt to funnel -- and thus restrict -- the flow of official information through newly hired chief clerk Amy Revak, whose ever-evolving job description would be augmented yet again, this time to include the duries of "public relations officer."

If Ambrosini and/or Zapotosky are too lazy or lack the confidence to deal with the press directly, there is nothing that prohibits them from asking Revak to be their mouthpiece. But what they cannot -- and should not be allowed -- to do is force the third commissioner, Angela Zimmerlink, to be party to this abrogation.

Here is the key passage from Wednesday's story on this ("Fayette Co. commissioners table public relations job,", July 18), which was thannkfully read aloud by Zimmerlink and reported by Steve Ferris:

The parts of the job description she objected to included requiring all departments to report to the officer before any information is released to the public; requiring a majority of the commissioners to sign any information before it is released to the public; a directive that all media inquiries regarding the county’s point of view, direction, policy or intention should be directed to the officer; requiring all printed material bearing the commissioners’ signatures shall be directed to the officer for approval; making the officer responsible for all printed material designed to influence public attitudes toward the county and its officials; making the officer responsible for coordinating the release of the suggestion of any county news story and requiring the officer to approve all news releases written by the commissioners or department heads.

There are plenty of reasons why Zimmerlink is justified in saying, "There is absolutely no way I’m approving this" -- starting with the fact that she voted against hiring Revak. But the larger issue concerns how this change, like the one involving making Ambrosini the only one in charge of the county solicitor, serves to restrict the flow of information.

"Requiring a majority of the commissioners to sign any information before it is released to the public." So if there is a report, or a letter, or a request for comment from the media or a citizen, Ambrosini and Zapotosky want two at least two of the three commissioners to sign off on that? Exactly where to they expect Zimmerlink to get a second vote?

"All media inquiries regarding the county’s point of view, direction, policy or intention should be directed to the officer." So what happens if there is a difference in the point of view? If one of the three commissioners disagrees with the other two, which "point of view" will Revak disseminate to the media? Would it be that of her benefactors, Ambrosini and Zapotosky; or that of Zimmerlink, who did not want to hire her? Beyond that, reporters are free to call anyone they want for comment. Shouldn't Revak, the former reporter hired partly for her media knowledge, be telling Ambrosini and Zapotosky that?

Making the officer responsible for all printed material designed to influence public attitudes toward the county and its officials. This is a good one. Does it mean that the county's PR machine will create printed material designed to influence public attitudes? If not, does it mean that someone says, "This (report, letter, etc.) will make us look awful bad. Let's pretend it does not exist"?

Requiring the officer to approve all news releases written by the commissioners or department heads. This one may actually have some merit as concerns releases from department heads, who may or may not have the skills or background to write them effectively. But if a single commissioner has the confidence and desire to pen and distribute a news release, there is no logical reason to require Revak to approve it. The concept is called Freedom of Speech.

We see this as a further attempt to marginalize the opposition, in this case Zimmerink, by laying down a set of rules that really aren't needed. If Ambrosini and Zapotosky want to utilize Revak as a public relations officer, they can do that without passing a resolution.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ask around

Here's the question that needs answered: If it's a good idea for the Fayette County commissioners to designate chairman Al Ambrosini as the only one of them who can issue directives to the county's chief solicitor, how many other counties have deployed this strategy?

Do the neighboring counties of Greene, Washington and Westmoreland find it necessary to grant one -- and only one -- of their three county commissioners the power to tell the solicitor what to do?

The answer is, "Probably not." And it's a pretty fair bet that if anyone in those counties tried to do such a thing, the other two commissioners probably wouldn't stand for it.

Why? Because three commissioners are elected to run the county. Not just one. They may have different vote totals on Election Day, but in the eye of the law, once they take office they are equals, entrusted with the same job responsibilities and the same powers.

You can read more about this debate here:

We find it interesting that the rationale (some would call it excuse) being given to support this restriction of involvement is that interim solicitor Ken Burkley of Greensburg needs to be able to focus on devising the litigation-avoidance strategy he was hired to develop.

According to's Friday story, Burkley was hired in March to work three to six months, with this task being his focus.

It is now July. He has worked for the county four months. Can we expect to see the fruits of his labor within the next eight weeks? If his plate needs cleared of clutter, why is that necessary now? Shouldn't that have been the case right after he was hired?

Here are a couple of interesting paragraphs from the story, regarding Burkley's job duties:

Those preparations include interviews with job candidates.

Ambrosini said any new solicitor the commissioners would hire would come from the pool of "exceptionally good" attorneys in the county and Burkley won’t be considered.

So as the time grows near for Burkley to apparently help choose his successor, it becomes necessary to give Ambrosini -- and only Ambrosini -- the power to instruct the solicitor?

When county commissioner Angela Zimmerlink says, "I have that right and authority as a commissioner" to assign work to Burkley if she wishes, she is correct.

Only in Fayette County would such an idea fly. But don't take it from us. Ask the commissioners in the surrounding counties. If it's such a good idea, they would be doing it, too.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Fike versus the Office of Open Records

Who ya gonna believe?

In this corner, responding to fellow board member Beverly Beal's written request for public information, is Harry Fike, chairman of the Fayette County Housing Authority, who writes that she must "provide the authority with a written statement clarifying the purpose for which you seek the requested information." ("Beal seeks to review authority documents,", July 8)

And in this corner, straight from the website of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, the definitive authority on the state's Right-to-Know Law, comes this question and answer:

Can a public body ask why a person wants (to) obtain the information? [Section 1308]
No. The law prohibits a public body from requiring a person "to disclose the purpose or motive in requesting access to records."

"No" sounds like a pretty clear answer to us, when it comes to whether or not a public agency in Pennsylvania can ask a person what they intend to do with the public information they are requesting.

It doesn't matter what Beal (or anyone else) wants to do with such information. They can laminate it for posterity, make copies to distribute as gifts for Christmas, or use it for toilet paper in a pinch.

We wonder why reporter Patty Yauger didn't take three seconds to search the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records website, under "FAQs" to find the answer we got. It certainly would have added an interesting -- and important -- perspective to her story. (She can still call Terry Mutchler, the executive director of the Office of Open Records, to verify if Fike is right or full of you-know-what.)

Instead, readers were treated to a verbal regurgitation of the circumstances behind the other four board members' "censure" of Beal arising from a packet discovered in a restaurant, one that Fike says contained some "scary" stuff.

That was May 30. It has now early July. It has been five weeks, which seems plenty of time for state police to either charge Beal with a crime, thus supporting the need to censure her and initiate action to remove her from the board, or exonerate her, thus exposing all this hulabaloo as the political witch hunt she says it is.

This isn't exactly the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, so it shouldn't take too long to wrap up the case.

None of that, however, has anything to do with Beal's request to see all the payments made to Cohen and Grigsby, the Pittsburgh law firm that the housing authority retains in addition to its regular solicitor. It is also the firm that the FCHA reportedly instructed to hire a private investigator to snoop into Packetgate.

Beal, as a citizen or a board member, is entitled to see those financial records and to get copies if she wishes. That is the law in Pennsylvania -- and the law says you don't have to state the reason for asking for public information.

We would love to see everyone in Fayette County who cares about open government make a formal written request to the housing authority, asking to see all of the Cohen and Grigsby payment vouchers for the past year. Would Fike send each of them a reply, asking them to state the reason?

And If he did, how could anyone even remotely construe that as openness?

As an aside, you may remember the last time the Fayette County Housing Authority had one of its critics investigated, and how that one turned out.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

New publisher takes helm

Newly christened publisher Robert Pinarski says one of his goals is to "make this organization the premiere information resource for our readers with all our platforms." (, July 1).

If this is true, he might want to start by linking his website to several blogs, including the one operated by Fayette County Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink.

That's where inquiring minds can find news such as the fact that Dave Madison, the long-time head of Fayette County Children and Youth Services, is resigning next month. And that Jim Hercik, the county's long-time Tax Assessment Office director, is also resigning next month.

Two key department heads submit their resignations weeks ago, that seems like a pretty good story. Or at least something worth mentioning. The search for their replacements is also newsworthy, as Zimmerlink points out in her latest blog post:

So how is it that no action has been taken on the recent resignation notices of CYS Director and Tax Assessment Director and how is it that yet again, Dominic Carnicella, Felice Associates, ignores my inquiry?
Case In Point: Dave Madison via an email on June 4th submitted his resignation with an effective date of August 3rd. Jim Hercik via a memo on June 18th submitted his resignation with an effective date of August 17th. Despite my direction to our HR Department to begin the recruitment process, here it is July 5th and nothing..not even a response from Dominic Carnicella to me. Well perhaps their replacements are quietly being made within the selected political circles.

Astute readers will recall that the recent news of county judge Ralph Warman's announced retirement did not go without notice. It was greeted with a news story and a highly complimentary editorial. Hercik (for sure) Madison (probably) have served in their current capacities at least as long as Warman has been a judge. So what's the difference?

Pinarski might also want to ask if he defines a "premiere information resource for our readers" as one that runs a story on his hiring on page 1, but relegates the story that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who one day after providing the swing vote that upheld the constitutionality of the national health care law appeared at a legal conference at Nemacolin Woodlands, to page 3 of the same edition. ("Chief Justice appears at conference,", July 1)

And it was an Associated Press story, to boot!

If the Associated Press knew ahead of time that Roberts was coming to Nemacolin Woodlands the day after what is widely held as the most important decision of the current Supreme Court term, and had the wherewithal to send a reporter, why didn't the local newspaper?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Which is the scarier stuff?

Thirteen days after voting to "censure" fellow board member Beverly Beal, in a flap over a packet allegedly left behind in a restaurant, the other four board members of the Fayette County Housing Authority took an interesting action.

Harry Fike, Robert Onesko, Mary Wertz and Harry "Bo" Joseph yesterday approved a settlement agreement with former housing authority finance director Steve Middleton, who was fired in April 2011.

And, they agreed to keep the terms of this agreement secret, according to the story, "Housing authority settles lawsuit," June 27.

Here's a quote from that story, from housing authority executive director Tom Harkless, that should have everyone falling out of their seats: "Part of the agreement is to keep everything confidential. Both sides agreed that there would be no further discussion."

There's just one small problem for Harkless and those four board members: The law doesn't allow such things. (Quick, somebody call Cohen and Grigsby! We need to find an investigator, pronto!)

Those same four board members centered their motion to censure Beal around this theme: "Her conduct has been improper and unprofessional and her actions are detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves. She has violated our trust and violated her fudiciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussion an ongoing federal case." ("FCHA censures member over docuements,", June 15).

Improper and unprofessional? Here's what Pennsylvania Newspaper Association attorney Melissa Melewsky had to say about the Middleton agreement, according to "Pennsylvania law is clear. Settlement agreements involving a public agency are public and confidentiality clauses in such settlements are not legally enforceable."

Violated trust and fudiciary responsbility? Again, from Melewsky: "It is also worth noting that courts have penalized government agencies that deny access of settlement agreements." (Can you say, "Fines"?)

The bigwigs at the Fayette County Housing Authority should know better. They can't keep this agreement secret, so why even try? But your right to know the terms will depend on someone: 1. Asking for a copy; and 2. Taking the matter to court, if turned down.

Fike previously said that some of the stuff in the packet allegedly left behind by Beal was "scary."

We don't know about you, but an old newspaper photo of Harkless working at K-Mart as a teen-ager is a lot less scary than a public agency that, in 2012, is trying to keep secrets.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wipe away the tears

It's perfectly understandable why Fayette County commission chairman Vincent Zapotosky would get teary-eyed over the alleged beating death of a child, as he reportedly did at Tuesday's commissioner meeting.

"I'm so sorry for you," Zapotosky is reported as telling Sharon Smitley of Lake Lynn, a grandmother who came to the meeting as part of her awreness crusade. Her 4-year-old grandson, Trenton St. Clair of Point Marion, died in September despite numerous complaints being made to Fayette County Children and Youth Services.

You can read more about the case here: "Grandmother takes up cause against Fayette CYS," (Tribune-Review, April 12)

As we have pointed out before, this was the second death of a child in Fayette County in 2011. The first occurred in January of that year -- and prompted Zapotosky to shed tears before the cameras of WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh.

Here is a transcript of that 17-month-old news segment, from WTAE's website:

Fayette County Official Vows 'Accountability' In Toddler's Death

Parents Charged With Criminal Homicide In Death Of 15-Month-Old
POSTED: 3:53 pm EST January 6, 2011
UPDATED: 6:08 pm EST January 7, 2011

POINT MARION, Pa. -- Fayette County‘s highest elected official told Channel 4 Action News that he’s determined to find out what could have been done to prevent the death of a 15-month-old girl in need of special care.

"I will assure the people of Fayette County there will be accountability," said Fayette County Commissioners Chairman Vincent Zapotosky. "I will work on it and I will find out what went wrong, and we will do everything we can to hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind."

Police charged the parents of Madison Violet Dodson with criminal homicide after she was found unresponsive by her father at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday in the family's home on Morgantown Street in Point Marion.

A year-and-a-half after making that pledge, which was made eight months before the death of Trenton St. Clair, one would think that by now Zapotosky would be able to answer three very basic questions:

1. Did CYS in any way, shape or form screw up, in the cases involving Madison Violet Dodson or Trenton St. Clair?

2. Is CYS so under-staffed that it could not handle the complaints in a timely enough fashion?

3. If CYS needs more manpower, what is his plan for the COUNTY to address this?

After all, it was Zapotosky who vowed to work on it and find out what went wrong. If CYS did all that it could, but was hamstrung by current law, then by all means it is appropriate for him to pledge his support to Smitley to get those laws changed.

That's what he reportedly did according to the June 21 story, "Zapotosky offers help to grandmother."

But here is an interesting line from that story: Zapotosky explained that CYS is sometimes limited in its ability to immediately respond to reports, but perhaps Smitley's initiative will make a difference.

IF CYS is sometimes limited in its ability to respond to reports, that seems to us a matter of not having enough manpower to do the job. It does not seem to be a matter of inadequate state or federal laws to empower the agency to do that job.

Before anyone goes writing letters to Gov. Tom Corbett, they should be able to state with specificity what law needs changed, and how current law hampered CYS in preventing the deaths of two children in these instances.

That hasn't been done. If so, it hasn't been reported.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Controversy for lunch

Here in the patch, we're having a field day over the "discovery" of a "packet" by a "restaurant employee" that led to the Fayette County Housing Authority's "censure" of board member Beverly Beal and a "state police investigation," as well as the authority's hiring of a "private investigator" and its appointment of a two-man "committee" to check things out.

It's all being made out to be pretty serious stuff, except for one problem: It isn't.

Not unless Beal having lunch with Sonya Over, the housing authority's former controller/finance director, and Angela Zimmerlink, a former housing authority board member and current county commissioner, is a crime.

Besides liking to meet for lunch once in a while, there is one thing in the public record that Beal, Over and Zimmerlink have in common: They are not huge fans of Tom Harkless, the housing authority's executive director.

Beal is in her second stint on the board. During the first, she made a constant theme of trying to reign in high administrative salaries while boosting the salaries of lower-paid workers, and of getting rid of Harkless' $650-a-month vehicle allowance. As board treasurer, she also went over expenditures with a fine-tooth comb.

Little wonder that after last spring's election, where Democrat Al Amrosini defeated incumbent Vince Vicites and Beal's return looked very likely, that the same housing authority board now censuring Beal attempted to change its rules concerning board membership -- a change that reportedly could have been invoked to keep Beal from getting back on the five-person board of directors.

That didn't work out, because the rules of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development trump those concocted by local housing authorities.

Before anyone goes all ga-ga over the motion to censure Beal, which states "her conduct has been improper and unprofessional and her actions are detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves," they should ask themselves if the attempt to change board membership rules was not also improper and unprofessional, and detrimental to the authority and the residents it serves.

The same could be asked about what transpired with Over, who as a key housing authority department head was suspended for one day (a punishment later rescinded by the State Civil Service Commission) and then for 30 days (which resulted in Over filing and prevailing in a civil lawsuit against the authority in which she was awarded monetary damages).

It may have escaped us, but we don't recall any board members being hot to trot to have Cohen & Grigsby, a Pittsburgh law firm contracted by the authority, help find an investigator to put on either of those cases.

In our view, Zimmerlink is ensnared in this, well, for just being Zimmerlink. She's a big political target, and those who aren't happy with the 18-vote margin of victory that kept her in office last November aren't going to go away any time soon. So if they can play a little "guilt by association," they will. And even if there is no guilt on her part, they will go with association.

If you want to read a comprehensive view of this story, you can do so here:

"Fayette housing authority board OKs censure, "Tribune-Review, June 14.

We'll ask our questions, one at a time, in chronological order as presented in that news story:

1. What legal statute gives four members of the Fayette County Housing Authority the power to censure the board's fifth member? We really wish someone would have asked that question of the authority solicitor at the meeting -- or would ask it of HUD now.

2. If there's an ongoing federal investigation of the Fayette County Housing Authority, why doesn't the weak-kneed local media know and report more about it? Why haven't any of them followed up on this important revelation?

3. If there's an ongoing federal investigation of the Fayette County Housing Authority, why are Harkless and the board apparently more focused on and worried about a packet allegedly left behind in a restaurant?

4. Of all the things allegedly in this packet, the thing that most disturbs housing authority board president Harry Fike is an old photograph of Harkless, taken when he was 18 years old and working at the Altoona K-Mart? Really?

5. What legal statute gives Fike the power to appoint fellow board members Harry Joseph and Robert Onekso to sit on a committee that "will deal exclusively with the authority's legal matters"? Is that even permitted by state law and HUD?

6. And how will the local media, HUD and the public react to the explanation in Joseph's motion that this two-man team is necessary "to eliminate the leaking of legal information" to outside sources? Doesn't a move like this deprive three of the five board members of any input or knowledge concerning matters that are very important to them performing their job of authority oversight? Could that not be considered "censorship"?

7. If the packet was left and found in a restaurant, how many people there (patrons or employees) had the opportunity to put stuff in, or take stuff out? If it was then forwarded to the housing authority offices, how many people there had the chance to put stuff in, or take stuff out? These are chain-of-evidence questions that any good investigator or attorney would have to ask.

We understand why the other four members of the board would want to censure Beal. She is a one-person minority, and she just might be someone they suspect of "leaking information" to outside sources. Perhaps, just perhaps, one of those outside sources might be HUD. Perhaps one of them might be the media.

At least in doing its story, the Trib attempted to contact Over and Zimmerlink for comment. Not so in's coverage. We scoured their story, "FCHA censures board member over documents," June 14, and saw nothing to indicate that their reporter even tried to get a rebuttal comment from Over or Zimmerlink.

They did print, however, this allegation that mentioned their names:

Board chairman Harry Fike said restaurant employees found the folder at a table where Beal, Fayette County Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink and former housing authority finance director Sonya Over had been sitting.

Lest you think that did not have time to make any phone calls, they did manage to place one to Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks Jr., and they printed his comment that state police are still investigating.

We challenge editor Mark O'Keefe to explain this latest but noteworthy example of shoddy reporting. There is no excuse for it, really.

As for us, we suspect that the real reason for censuring Beal -- a move we hope she appeals to HUD, by the way -- lies in this line from the censure motion: "She has violated our trust and violated her fiduciary responsibility by improperly discussing ongoing litigation on behalf of a litigant opposing the authority, as well as discussing an ongoing federal case."

Someone must think the best way to keep Beal in the dark is to keep her out of the loop.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Right criticism, wrong judge

Here in the patch, we are waiting with baited breath to see how editor Mark O'Keefe handles a prickly situation concerning retiring Fayette County Judge Ralph Warman.

Just a couple weeks ago, lauded the retiring Warman in an editorial, which said in part: He was methodical in handling trials and his various hearings, taking great lengths to make sure justice was being served. There was no such thing as a shortcut or doing something the easy way. To Warman, there was only one way to do things and that was the right way.

As a newspaperman, O'Keefe has a solemn obligation to support the public's right to know, especially as concerns public information and those who prefer to keep things secret.

Warman just made his life a little harder on that count. On Wednesday, the judge declared a mistrial in the trial for a man accused of shooting two people outside of a Unintown bar. ("Mistrial declared in shootings,", June 7).

According to that story, Warman summoned the defense and prosecution attorneys, along with a female juror, to his chambers. When they returned to court an hour later, Warman granted the defense attorney's request for a mistrial -- over the objections of the prosecution attorney -- but refused to state why.

The judge who never took a shortcut or did something the easy way, according to, appears to be, well,  taking a shortcut and doing something the easy way.

It gets worse, if you are a champion of open government, like O'Keefe: Not only did Warman refuse to offer an explanation for his ruling, he apparently told the two attorneys to zip their lips, too. The story says: Afterward, both attorneys declined to comment on what had occurred to cause the mistrial. (Assistant District Attorney J.W.) Eddy said they were advised by Warman not to discuss the reason and declined to say more about what had happened.

What is the harm in stating why this mistrial was declared? Doesn't the public have a right to know? Without this knowledge, how can anyone determine whether Warman made the right, or even a sound, decision?

The prosecution attorney objected to the move, so apparently at least he thinks the trial should have gone on as scheduled. He should be permitted to state why.

Will O'Keefe pound Warman, in any way, shape or form, for wanting to keep things hush-hush? Or will he let the issue slide, no questions asked?

The answer may be found in Friday's editorial, "Judge is wrong." The Herald-Standard criticized a judge, all right -- only it was the judge overseeing the trial of Jerry Sandusky in Centre County, in an editorial reprinted from the Altoona Mirror.

Instead of criticizing Warman, the judge in their own back yard, O'Keefe and Co. opted to put their stamp of approval on another newspaper's critique of Senior Judge John Cleland, criticizing him for banning electronic transmissions from the Sandusky trial.

Everyone should take special note of two lines from that editorial:

"All courts shall be open." (A line taken from the Pennsylvania Constitution.)

And: While Pennsylvania has the constitutional edict to have open courts, our judges have taken an activist, revisionist role in defining what open courts mean.

Would that also apply to Warman? Is refusing to state the reason for declaring a mistrial in keeping with the concept that "all courts shall be open"?

We suspect that O'Keefe would rather get purposely lost in Laurel Caverns for a month than write something even remotely critical of Warman.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Mirror, mirror on the wall ...

If you do nothing else today, you owe it to yourself to read this June 7 story in the Tribune-Review:

"Uniontown officials won't back resolution," at

The denizens of Fayette County should be grateful to see how the head of the county's lead economic development agency is spending his evenings these days: Heading to Uniontown City Council meetings, trying to drum up support for an organization he's formed on the side, with the goal of amending the U.S. Constitution.

Michael Krajovic, who by day is the well-compensated executive director of Fay-Penn Economic Development Corp. (though he prefers to call it a "development council"), approached the city fathers last night pitching the merits of his new group, Uplifting America.

Krajovic asked city council to approve a "Democracy Resolution" to amend the Constitution, to reassert that the power of American democracy will rest with the people -- not with corporations, organizations or wealthy individuals who spend their money to influence public elections.

That part in bold-face is taken, word for word, from the news story.

By "wealthy individuals who spend their money to influence public elections," is Krajovic referring to people like the late Bob Eberly? You know, the multi-millionaire who founded Fay-Penn, was thus Krajovic's benefactor for many, many years -- and who also for years and years tossed around lots of campaign cash that influenced many Fayette County elections?

Maybe Krajovic has forgotten that, in one pertinent example, kingmaker Eberly pretty much personally bankrolled the campaign of successful Fayette County commission candidate Ron Nehls.

Here's another passage from the news story:

In recent times, Krajovic said campaigns are unjustly won by outspending opponents on political advertising, which has become increasingly negative, lacking substance and in many cases grossly misleading.

Is Krajovic referring to things like the full-page newspaper advertisements that Fay-Penn, its board members and supporters have run toward that end? We seem to recall one, featuring the names and signatures of many Fay-Penn potentates, that was critical of former commissioner Sean Cavanagh. Weren't they trying to influence that election?

Maybe we missed it, but we don't recall Krajovic forming his own group and urging passage of resolutions -- or wanting, for God's sake, to alter the U.S. Constitution -- back when Eberly was bankrolling Fay-Penn and being a major political campaign contributor. Or when members of his "organization" were affixing their names to negative ads.

We don't remember Krajovic leading the charge to check-mate the influence of the exceptionally wealthy, back when at least one exceptionally wealthy person was in a position to benefit him.

We are bemused that during his spiel before city council, Krajovic said that while he intends to push his resolution nationwide, he wanted to give Uniontown first crack at approving it. You know, historical importance and all.

Does anyone in their right mind think this Krajovic initiative is going anywhere, except the bad idea scrap heap?

Pardon us, but we want to laugh out loud when we read that Krajovic said it is un-American, anti-democratic and unjust for the voices of a few to be able to down out the voices of many just because they have more money to spend in public elections.

Does he also believe that it is un-American, anti-democratic and unjust for the voices of the few to attempt to silence or discredit critics? Can he vouch that he or no one from his organization has ever attempted such a thing?

And then Krajovic railed against those "who seek to manipulate and control our government for their own personal gain," as quoted in the Tribune-Review.

Did anyone on council hold up a mirror as he said that?

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Washington Post visits the patch

Did ya know that the Washington Post-- yes, THE Washington Post -- stopped by the patch the other day to talk to take the pulse of the electorate regarding the upcoming presidential election?

That's right -- one of the country's premiere newspapers thought it important to stop by "coal country" (in a county that hasn't had a major working mine in 50 years), to talk to people who still say, "I grew up in the patch."

The story, "In Pennsylvania coal country, voters not thrilled with their choices," can be read here:

Were you aware that, according to the Post, Fayette County "is a political and economic battleground"? Or that it is "full of prototypical Reagan Democrats"? Or that -- egad! -- its "unemployment rate is higher than the national average"?

Or that, "This is one of the poorest counties in the state. Locals bemoan a culture in which too many families are broken and too many people have drug dependencies or are living off disability payments in what ought to be the prime of their working lives."

(We can't wait to see what the folks at Fay-Penn Economic Development handle "negative news" when it appears in a national publication. Perhaps a letter to the Post, saying that its story is driving potential employers away?)

Anyway, here in "coal country," amid all its "company houses" and overgrown gop heaps, the Post found South Union Township supervisor Bob Schiffbauer, state Rep. Tim Mahoney, union member Mike Mercadante, one-time Brownsville restaurant owner Beverly Novotny, high school employee Tina Palko, psychologist/Republican Debra Rhodes, disabled Vietnam veteran Gary Smitley, used car salesman Tom Nicholson, lawyer Jeffrey Golembiewski and Judge Ralph Warman.

We're not sure how many of them ever lived in a company house or played on a slate dump, but they are the Post sources on this story, which seems to be centered on the theme that Fayette County voters are having a tough time choosing between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.

The story notes that in the traditionally Democrat-heavy county, Republican John McCain beat Obama by fewer than 200 votes in 2008.

We have our own theories on why that was -- and why Obama may not carry Fayette this year, either -- but our real pet peeve concerns the endless and meaningless historical recitation about the area that still goes on.

What is the relevance of anyone continuing to state that Fayette County was part of the Whiskey Rebellion? That has about as much to do with the current Fayette County situation, or the mindset of the people therein, as it does Justin Bieber's latest hair style. Have you ever heard anyone say, "My great-great-great-great Grandpappy was part of the Whiskey Rebellion -- and that fighting spirit, handed down through the generations, is why I won't take this from my elected officials!"

Honestly, someone should mount a campaign to convince the Post and others to stop refering to "King Coal" (that king has been dead for so long, he no longer matters), "trolley cars" (they haven't operated for ages, but we do have a pretty nice expressway and bypass, and even most of the poor have cars), and "steel mills ... fueled by coke" (the only thing the county's coke fuels nowadays is bad behavior and crime).

Same thing for references to Fort Necessity, the French and Indian War, Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington, the National Road, blah-blah-blah. What any of those things has to do with a current-day analysis of presidential politics is beyond us.

Do you think that they matter to Obama or Romney, or the Democrat or Republican strategists who are crafting their strategy for winning the election?

"President Obama, we've done the research -- visit Fallingwater and mention Frank Lloyd Wright, and you'll win Pennsylvania."

"Governor Romney, if you want to carry Fayette County and win Pennsylvania, you'll need to ride in the National Pike Festival wagon train. Our research shows people will vote on that basis."

In any case, the story is an interesting take on how outsiders view Fayette County, shorn of worry about how advertisers or the influential will react.