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.


Thursday, August 28, 2014


In the wake of last week's 2-1 vote to suspend plans for a new Fayette County prison, some vocal opponents of the plan are engaging in a lot of self-congratulatory back slapping, giving themselves credit for succeeding in turn around Commissioner Vince Zapotosky's vote.

Zapotosky himself is playing into the narrative with the fervor of Sunday televangelist. About the only thing he hasn't done is stand up and shout, "Glory! Hallelujah! I have finally seen the light! Can I get an A-ah-MEN!" His attempt to portray himself as a responsive elected official, one who listened to the people and bent to their wishes, is designed to play to the crowd and make them feel victorious, while minimizing his own political liabilities.

Likewise, Zapotosky's statement that he hasn't given up on the project, implying that he might want to renovate the exisiting prison and perhaps find some property nearby for a scaled-down construction effort, is designed to wallpaper over the fact that he voted to spend $2 million on another plan on which he was fully aboard, then suddenly changed his mind.

That's not good leadership. That's playing the public for a fool.

If you are for a new prison, Commissioner Al Ambrosini deserves to be your hero. He's led the charge, been steadfast in his conviction on what should be done, and worked hard to see his favored course of action become reality.

And if you are against a new prison, Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink deserves to be your hero. She's also been out front in opposition, unwavering in her firm conviction that a better alternative exists, and worked hard to make sure her point of view was not forgotten in the debate.

But Zapotosky? He's not worthy of being anyone's hero. He's once again demonstrated his trademark: A willingness to whatever is in the perceived best interest of the re-election of Vince Zapotosky. If it looks like building a new prison outside of Uniontown is best for his future political viability, he's all for it, as he was for two years.

But if it looks like his chances of staying in office are better if he kills the project -- and pisses away $2 million of your money in the process -- Zapotosky quickly and without hesitation changes his mind. Is this anyone's idea of strong leadership? In poverty-stricken Fayette County, where all funds are precious, can you really buy logic from a seven-year commissioner that boils down to, "You're lucky that I threw away only $2 million now instead of spending $30 million later"?

Say what you will about the administration of former Commissioners Vince Vicites, Sean Cavanagh and the late Ron Nehls, but they tackled big issues with firm resolve, and saw them through despite political differences and shifting alliances. They took out a multi-million-dollar bond issue to finance a controversial (and long overdue) property reassessment, and to provide seed money to develop the former county home property along Route 40. Take a look at how that vision has unfolded and ask if the county is better off because of their decision, which was highly controversial at the time.

They even built into the equation a mechanism to prevent Fayette County from falling into the same property assessment inequity trap that led to all kinds of problems: The computerized ability to update every few years, at a fraction of the cost, to keep up with changing real estate market conditions. As the Herald-Standard correctly pointed out in its Aug. 24 editorial, Zapotosky and Zimmerlink shelved that update in 2009, wasting an estimated half-million-dollars of work. We have no doubt a large part of that decision was political. Vicites went along with it, too -- but in our view, he wasn't about to put his head on the voter chopping block after the other two backed out.

No one likes a reassessment, but here's one basic and immutable fact: When you don't do one, the people with higher-valued properties are the ones to profit; while folks with lower-valued ones get screwed. Thus, the Heritage Hills crowd benefits, while the people in places like Smock and Grindstone and Ronco pay a disproportionately higher share. To be fair, Ambrosini's done nothing to revive the matter since taking office.

Our point is that implementing a reassessment is perhaps the most difficult yet courageous decision a county commissioner can make, because even when the need is abundantly clear, it's certain to draw howls of protest. The easy and politically expedient thing is to succumb to that pressure and do nothing, which has happened all too often in Fayette County.

Regarding the prison, Zapotosky is now the man on the spot and we should all be eager to see what he does. If he truly thinks an alternative is better and is willing to lead, he should make a motion at the next commission meeting to set in motion plans to renovate the exisiting Fayette County prison, and to start the process of any related land acquisition in downtown Uniontown. It's as easy for him to put a plan on the table as it was to take one off. And there's no need to further study an issue that's already been studied to death. Everyone already knows the options, and certainly someone who's been in office as long as Zapotosky has should have a clear idea of what to do.

Renovation of the current lockup has been looked at repeatedly in the past, and it's long been favored by Zimmerlink, who, with a second vote, can make her prefered method of solving the problem a reality. Do you think Zapotosky will do that?

We're betting he won't, because that would be another tough decision, especially with a primary election just eight months away. In the months leading up to the election, we believe Zapotosky will pay just enough lip service to solving the problem to make it look like progress is being made, without having to put up any tangible vote to actually make something happen.

Speaking of which, there's one way Zapotosky could debunk this assessment of his motives as political. He can declare publicly that he won't be seeking re-election to a third term. That should be pretty easy for him to do, since when he first ran for commissioner, he pledged openly at a candidate forum to only serve two terms in office if elected. It was a big part of his stump speech.

Surely, as his second four-year term comes to a close, Zapotosky is a man of his word and won't be running for office again in the spring. Unless, of course, he's changed his mind on that one, too.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Squanderer

When you squander $2 million of county taxpayer money making a sudden U-turn in your long-held position, like Fayette County Commissioner Vince Zapotosky, it's best to find someone else to blame.

Which is precisely what Zapotosky did at Tuesday's meeting, where he tried to make the Herald-Standard newspaper and reporter Patty Yauger the subject of attention, rather than his own ineptitude and wishy-washyness.

Zapotosky called Yauger the "personal reporter" of fellow Democratic Commissioner Al Ambrosini -- which only serves as affirmation that the stories Yauger has broken about Zapotosky's actions regarding the proposed new $30 million Fayette County prison have rattled Zapotosky.

You'd probably be rattled, too, if the public found out that you were responsible for obtaining and turning over architecturall designs for the new prison to a man from Morgantown, West Virginia, who in turn gave them to a contractor in that city -- a contractor that intended to bid on the project.

Yauger's work documented all of the above. Does anyone doubt that Zapotosky's action smacks of favoritism, bad judgement, or both? Who is he to unilaterally decide which construction firm should get the opportunity to "review" the plans drawn up by a firm he already voted to hire for that task?
His actions are important stuff for the public to know. Should Yauger be blamed for doing her job?

But instead of directing his ire where it belongs -- at the guy looking back at him in the mirror -- Zapotosky has tried to deflect attention away from himself. He has blamed Yauger for interviewing his personal courthouse assistant, Kathy Winkler, regarding the distribution of those plans, as though that's some high crime in the world of journalism.

Imagine that -- a reporter who asks questions! If Winkler didn't want to answer any, all she had to say was, "No comment." And, if she were so inclined, she could have added, "You'll need to ask Vince about that." We doubt that Yauger would have put Winkler in a headlock until she changed her mind.

Zapotosky also has taken aim at Ambrosini, blaming his long-time partner in running county government for sanctioning an "interrogation" of Winkler by Yauger. On WMBS radio's "Let's Talk" show Friday, Zapotosky trotted out Winkler as an on-air sidekick and tried to make the focus how upset she was at being asked questions during a nearly three-hour interview with Yauger.

To Zapotosky, at least, it was the Big Bad Wolf Ambrosini and Godzilla Yauger intimidating Little Miss Muffet Winkler to the point of tears.

Guess what, Vince? It goes with the territory. And surely you, of all people, know that.

You don't have to like Ambrosini for turning in your actions to the state Ethics Commission. But it looks like you will have to answer for them in some fashion. Maybe that's what has you squirming and backpedaling.

You don't have to like Yauger for pursuing this particular story, but that's not really an issue. And it's certainly, and thankfully, not your call. You can disparage Yauger as another commissioner's "personal reporter" all you want, but if you want to open that can of worms, we seriously doubt you'll end up voting to hire Yauger for a key position in the commissioner's office, like you did her Herald-Standard predecessor in covering county government.

In either case, we wouldn't want to be the elected official who slipped documents to a guy who passed them on to a contractor that, in turn, intended to bid on a $30 million project. If, as Zapotsky says, he just wanted an independent review of the plans and suggestions on how to save money, why didn't he make such a motion at a commission meeting and give ALL interested contractors the same opportunity?

When Zapotosky says, "Am I a day late and a dollar short? You betcha," it's important to remember that he's really two years and $2 million short. There's nothing he plans to do now in terms of exploring alternatives that he couldn't have done months or years ago regarding this project. He supported the idea of building a new prison, the site selection and acquisition, the hiring of a design firm and the expenditure of a significant amount of funds to get the project started. That wasn't Monopoly money he voted to hand out.

What's mystifying, though, is why so many people in the audience at Tuesday's meeting, people who rejoiced in the 2-1 vote to suspend the prison project, made snide remarks about Yauger and her reportage on this issue. Those catcalls are unwarranted.

You can't have it both ways. If it weren't for Yauger's reporting, Zapotosky wouldn't have been put on the hot spot that probably led to him changing his mind after two years as an ardent supporter of this costly prison project. His actions threw a big monkey wrench into the process. Opponents of the new prison may be glad that Zapotosky changed position and provided the second vote necessary to stop the project, but they shouldn't be blaming Yauger for turning in the best piece of investigative journalism the Herald-Standard has done in years.

Without Yauger's aggressive effort, no one would have known about these plans being slipped out of the courthouse and shipped to West Virginia. Certainly,Zapotosky wasn't telling the public that's what he was up to.

If Yauger heard about this and didn't follow up, many of those same critics would be pounding her for looking the other way. The focus should be on Zapotosky's actions -- his sudden change of heart and the propriety of handing out architectural plans for a yet-to-be-bid project -- not on the reporter and how she did her job.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Getting smoked ...

Note to the Herald-Standard:
Liz Zemba and the Greensburg Tribune-Review are kicking your ass on this story.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kudos, sort of ...

We'll be kind and give the Herald-Standard and reporter Patty Yauger some credit for the Sept. 4 front-page story, "Fayette advances prison plans." At least they notified the public of what was likely already published in the classified advertising section regarding the full-court press being put on by supporters of building a new Fayette County Prison.

The first paragraph of Yauger's story is the highlight: Fayette County commissioners have yet to take offical action as to whether a new prison will be built or a temporary women's detention annex be leased, but a recent advertisement for architectural and engineering services indicates a timeline for both projects.

The story's all downhill from there.

Twenty paragraphs later, the reader is told this: The bid opening for engineering and architectural services for both projects is to take place at 3 p.m. Oct. 3 in the commissioners' meeting room. A contract is to be awarded following the opening of bids.

"A contract is to be awarded following the opening of bids" is listed at the end of the story? Somebody -- perhaps new executive editor Mike Palm -- needs to give Yauger a primer on writing in the inverted pyramid style, where the most important information is position at the top of the story.

Seems to us that if someone plans to award a contract immediately after opening the bids, on a project that could cost $30 million, they're not -- to use a favorite phrase of former Commissioner Vince Vicites -- performing their "due diligence."

The engineering and architectural work is being soliciated by a method known as "request for qualifications," so they aren't really bids at all. Yauger should know that. By using what's known as an "RFQ," the commissioners (or more than likely, a majority of the board) can award the contract to any firm they want. Price won't matter one bit.

The problem is, RFQs require study. Or at least they should. They are basically a glorified resume, telling a prospective employer what kinds of similar work the firm has done, the size and experience of its staff, etc. It is then up to the prospective employer -- in this case, Fayette County -- to sift through those qualifications and come up with a winner.

Opening the envelopes and picking a winner right away smells very much like that winner has already been determined, does it not? It's sort of like crowning Miss America before you have the swimsuit and talent competitions.

Here's the biggest criticism we have of this story: Yauger didn't pick up the phone, as far as we are aware, to call a single person for comment.

Wouldn't you think that advertising for architectural and engineering services, with the planned award of a contract on Oct. 3, is a pretty strong indication that at least two of the three county commissioners are pretty commited to building a new prison, even though they've taken no official action?

Fact is, all three commissioners should have been called for comment on this one. It's a big project, one that carries a significant amount of public debt, and if you read the story you'll see an awful lot of scope-of-work details from the RFQ.

It sure sounds like someone has decided they are taking official action on building a new prison. And when it comes down to brass tacks, it isn't the prison working group or the National Institute of Corrections who are making that decision on Oct 3, although they are being heavily used to soften the beach.

It's the county commissioners. Or at least it's two of three of them.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Today's story is brought to you by ...

Here in the patch, we're waiting with baited breath for Herald-Standard executive editor Mark O'Keefe to explain in an upcoming column why a prominent local law firm was credited in a full-page advertisement with being the sponsor of his newspaper's five-part series on the Fayette County Prison.

(You can see it for yourself, on page B-8 of the Friday, August 9 edition.)

It will be staring back at you, in black and white: "Herald-Standard Investigates: Behind the Prison Walls ... Sponsored by Davis and Davis, attorneys at law."

This is the first time that we know of -- and perhaps the first time in recorded history -- that the Herald-Standard has had, or felt the need to have, a sponsor for a news story it should be doing anyway.

O'Keefe, as long-time readers will recall, has publicly staked out his position on ethics as pertains to journalism. We refer, once again of course, to his forceful Dec. 5, 2010 column entitled, "Ethics issues taken seriously."

His words of that time included: "It's paramount that our newsroom maintains its independence and covers stories objectively."

O'Keefe might be able to defend that his charges still cover stories objectively, but we can imagine a lot of stammering and stuttering as he attempts to explain -- verbally or in writing -- how acceptance of a "sponsor" for a series of news stories falls in line with maintaining newsroom independence.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, journalists are to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

Surely, O'Keefe must recognize the problems inherent in accepting -- and then openly promoting -- a sponsor for a news story. It opens up the newspaper to a whole host of questions, including whether its coverage is for sale.

What's next? Will we see famed local auctioneer Wylie Rittenhouse standing in front of 8-18 East Church Street, yelling, "I got 50 bucks for the city council story, do I hear 55?"

We bet even O'Keefe cannot be happy about this. But it falls to him to do the explaining.