Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nary a peep

Well, it's been 14 days since the story broke that the state attorney general had charged a former magisterial district judge in Fayette County with perjury and obstructing the administration of justice for allegedly fixing a drunk driving case.

The circumstances surrounding the incident that led to those charges, filed against long-time DJ Dwight Shaner, involve a cast of characters that include current county District Attorney Jack Heneks and current Common Pleas Judge (and at the time assistant district attorney) Linda Cordero.

Surely, we thought by now that the intrepid editorial board of the Uniontown Herald-Standard would have weighed in on the situation. But as we've scoured the pages of the local paper, the only court-related official commentary we've seen is a Sept. 19 "Jeer" that began thusly: "What the heck was juror Ronnie Bryner of Mill Run thinking when he left the Fayette County Courthouse last August without being excused or released?" Bryner, poor fellow, has been cited for contempt for his actions. The editorial admonition of Bryner ended with, "Let's hope that (Judge John F.) Wagner's stern warning serves as a wakeup call for Bryner and anyone else who might have similar thoughts."

Call us crazy -- and we know some of you will, because childish name-calling is your specialty -- but we think that a situation of alleged case-fixing involving three elected officials who work at three critical levels of the county's judicial system is of far greater importance than the actions of a juror who goes AWOL.

You can read more of the Shaner-Heneks-Cordaro story details here or here or here

The Clift Notes version of the saga goes like this: State trooper shows up in Shaner's court for 2011 preliminary hearing on man's crash-related DUI charge. Defendant in case is nephew of assistant district attorney Cordaro, who shows up representing the DA's office. Cordaro recuses herself at last minute; Shaner takes unusual move of asking trooper for witnesses. Shaner refuses trooper's request for a continuance, Shaner dismisses the case, trooper is PO'ed. Heneks refuses trooper's request to refile the charges, concerned citizen gets wind of what happened and files complaint with AG Kathleen Kane, AG's office begins investigation and directs trooper to refile charges, nephew ends up pleading guilty, Cordaro ends up being elected to Fayette County judgeship in 2013 and now sits in that position.

There's so much here worth commenting on, especially if you consider yourself the "newspaper of record" for Fayette County. The question that begs answering is, "Why hasn't that happened yet?" This stuff all comes straight from a grand jury presentment from a proceeding convened by the state Attorney General, not some hand-scribbled text on scratch paper that arrived at the newspaper office in an anonymous letter with postage due.

Here are the questions we'd like to see the newspaper address editorially. (And if they're too busy slamming guys who skip out on jury duty, all they have to do is circle the answer that best aligns with their thoughts.)

Was it appropriate for Cordaro to even show up in Shaner's courtroom that day, since the defendant was her nephew? YES ... NO ... MAYBE ... MAN DON'T MAKE US ADDRESS THAT.

Was it appropriate for Shaner to dismiss the charges, or to then tell the state policeman as detailed in the grand jury report, "Hey, trooper, I hope you understand. I'm catching a little heat from Linda (Cordaro) because that is her nephew"? YES ... NO ... MAYBE ... MAN YOU'RE REALLY PUTTING US ON THE SPOT HERE.

Was it appropriate for Heneks to initially refuse to refile the charges, using the excuse that he needed witnesses who could put the nephew behind the wheel, when after AG intervention the nephew ended up pleading guilty instead of going to trial? YES ... NO ... MAYBE ... HEY NOBODY SHOULD GET AWAY WITH SKIPPING JURY DUTY.

Is it appropriate for Cordaro to remain a sitting Fayette County judge, in light of her role as a key figure in this legal drama? YES ... NO ... MAYBE ... THE VOTERS SPOKE IN NOVEMBER SO WHAT THE HECK CAN WE DO.

This case strikes at the heart of the operation of the Fayette County legal system, which should operate without favoritism. Saying something -- good, bad or indifferent -- is better than saying nothing at all. It's called doing your job.

Justice is supposed to be blind, not the editorial board of any self-respecting newspaper.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Selective 'full disclosure'

Back in August 2012, when a private investigator hired by the Fayette County Housing Authority showed up a county commission meeting to further the agenda of muddying up Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink over the contents of a packet reportedly found by a waitress in a restaurant, Commissioner Vince Zapotosky was a fan of "full disclosure" after some audience members questioned the propriety of the move.

"You just got done talking about (Nazi propoganda chief) Joseph Goebbels," Zapotosky said. "You can’t have it both ways. Either full disclosure, or not. No Joseph Goebbels. No Herman Goering. Full disclosure."
That's his quote, per the Tribune-Review:

As we predicted back then, the little anti-Zimmerlink publicity stunt was destined to go nowhere, and it hasn't. But that didn't stop Zapotosky from assuming a starring role in this Theater of the Absurd, as the public official committed to "full disclosure" of even the most thinly veiled political chicanery.

Fast-forward to July 2014, however, and our loyal readers will see Zapotosky playing a new character, this one with a marked lack of interest in "full disclosure" when it comes down to him. "Full disclosure" of Zapotosky's activities made him steaming mad, to the point of attacking the reporter who disclosed those activities and blaming her for launching an "inquisition" by asking questions of his administrative assistant.

To recap, Zapotosky procured architecural drawings for the planned new Fayette County prison and, on the cusp of the project being put out to bid after a two-year process that he wholeheartedly supported, arranged to have them secretly turned over to a man who, in turn, was supplying them to a Morgantown area contractor that intended to bid on the project.

That's a lot of "full disclosure" that wasn't taking place until reporter Patty Yauger of the Uniontown Herald-Standard brought the entire mess to the public's attention on Aug. 15. The public should read the prior paragraph very carefully and ask, "Is this above-board behavior for an elected official?" Even if it's not illegal, it is ethical?

Zapotosky, displaying the type of political skills that allowed him to work as a staffer for former U.S. Reps. Austin Murphy and his successor Frank Mascara despite huge rivalry between the two congressmen, has tried to poo-poo his actions.

Why, he just needed to "verify" that the drawings were "done right," don't ya know? As if the firms he voted to hire and pay a significant amount of money to do that work -- Crabtree Rohrbaugh and Associates of Mechanicsburg, and Sleighter Engineering Inc. of Uniontown -- must have known less than a man no one had hardly heard of and a Morgantown contractor that "built half of Morgantown." Unless the rebuilt half of Morgantown contains a modern prison, that firm's expertise in this area would be highly suspect, would it not?

Toss in the fact that the man to whom he slipped the architectural plans -- as documented by Yauger in a story -- was a campaign contributor to Zapotosky, and this plot thickens.

Zapotosky's actions have been turned over to the state Ethics Commission and to Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks by fellow Democratic Commissioner Al Ambrosini. While we understand that the Ethics Commission is tasked with operating in secrecy so as not to tar-and-feather someone based only on allegation, all eyes should be on Heneks to see how he handles this basically in-house situation. There is a precedent, set by Heneks himself.

Heneks had no trouble confirming two years ago that his office was investigating the alleged packet left behind by one of Zimmerlink's lunch pals, a packet alleged to have contained at least one proprietary Fayette County Housing Authority document. To our knowledge, Heneks has never publicly exonerated Zimmerlink or her lunch companions, even two years after the fact. It's something he should have done by now.

Will Heneks equally confirm that his office is investigating Zapotosky's alleged transgressions? The district attorney is on record in a news story as being disappointed that the new prison was effectively shelved when Zapotosky changed his position in the wake of his distribution of the architectural drawings being made public by Yauger. But we don't recall anyone trying to pin Heneks down on Zapotosky's behavior.

For better or worse, this should be way more of an open and shut case than the one involving Zimmerlink. A videotape exists of the man entering the courthouse and exiting the commissioner's office with the materials. Zapotosky's administrative assistant, Kathy Winkler, has confirmed in the press that she turned packages over to a man, known to her, at Zapotosky's direction.

Heneks should have had plenty of time to review the state's conflict of interest statute and other laws by now. If he's taking this seriously, his investigators should already have interviewed Winkler and other witnesses.

It's all too easy for us to imagine how this same scenario would be playing out had, for example, it been Zimmerlink instead of Zapotosky who had engaged in these actions. We're betting the reaction would have been quite different, on many fronts. You might have even seen an orchestrated mob with pitchforks and torches gathering outside the courthouse.

As for Winkler, we certainly hope that she took leave time to appear alongside Zapotosky on the WMBS radio talk show the Friday that Yauger's story broke. Being in a position funded by the county taxpayer, helping her boss with political spin while on the taxpayers' dime isn't likely to be in her official job description. It may even be illegal.

Maybe Heneks or the press could check that out, too, in the interest of further "full disclosure." Surely the employee time cards for that pay period have already been processed and will reflect how Winkler spent her time that day -- and any attempt to alter them at this point would be improper and smack of a cover-up.

In the interim, though, you've got to give Zapotosky some credit for playing his hand well. The anti-new-prison faction that's been a fixture at commission meetings doesn't seem inclined to criticize him -- even for slipping plans out the door -- any time soon. They're of the opinion that he bent to their will by reversing field on his staunch support of building a new prison, and therefore affirmed the worthiness of their cause. In short, he makes them feel good about themselves, which has put them in a very forgiving mood.

And the pro-Zimmerlink faction appears to have crossed him off their criticism radar, too, knowing full well that if she's to succeed on a prison alternative or any other item, she's going to need Zapotosky as a second vote.

Zapotosky's recent moves have put Zimmerlink in the catbird seat, which was unthinkable for most of his seven-year tenure as a commissioner.