Suit over Luzerne County veteran affairs director termination headed to trial next week

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | February 1st, 2016 7:09 pm

Did Richard Wren’s firing as Luzerne County Veteran Affairs director six years ago stem from politics or proper procedure?

The question will be aired in federal court next week when Wren’s suit against the county and former county commissioners Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban goes to trial.

Wren, 57, maintained he was fired because he was a “political affiliate” of former county commissioner Greg Skrepenak, and Petrilla and Urban were Skrepenak’s “political adversaries.”

Petrilla and Urban said their decision to terminate was recommended by the county manager and solicitor in 2009 because Wren admitted to altering a receipt he submitted for reimbursement.

According to court paperwork filed by Petrilla and Urban:

The county can reimburse local veteran organizations up to $75 for refreshments and meals if they volunteer to place county-supplied flags on veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.

Organizations must submit a receipt or written request that is attached to a payment authorization form signed by the county veteran affairs director.

In 2009, a representative of the Disabled Veterans of America placed flags at the three largest cemeteries in Pittston and submitted a $70 reimbursement request for two meals at a Perkins Restaurant and pizza place. The group misplaced the receipts and was unable to obtain replacement receipts as requested by Wren.

The Disabled Veterans representative had a Perkins receipt from another day, and Wren told an office clerk to change the date and the amount spent to $70 on that receipt. The altered receipt was attached to the payment authorization form.

The county controller’s office detected the “fraudulent receipt” and investigated. Wren admitted to altering the receipt in a meeting with three administrators at that time — Chief Solicitor Vito DeLuca, Manager Doug Pape and Human Resources Director Doug Richards. DeLuca and Pape recommended Wren’s termination.

Wren’s filing says he altered the receipt to show the date and expense because there was no doubt the total requested by the Disabled Veterans representative was accurate.

According to Wren’s court filing:

It was “obvious” the submission was not an original receipt, and the county’s payment request form did not require the production of a receipt.

Wren said Urban confronted him before the dismissal and “accused him of being in bed with Mr. Skrepenak or that he was one of his boys.”

Employees who committed “far worse conduct” with “far greater financial implications” were not fired, his filing said, mentioning questionable county debit card spending by some. The county also paid other items in 2009 without receipts attached to the payment authorizations.

Wren also has claimed age discrimination, saying Urban and Petrilla treated him “less favorably” than employees younger than him and noting they hired his replacement, James Spagnola, then 45, one month later.

Wren is seeking a net $140,751 in lost back pay and attorney fees totaling $60,000 to date.

Petrilla and Urban have argued that Wren’s position was exempt from constitutional protections for firing related to political affiliation because the director position involves making policy. Federal law allows people to be fired for political reasons if their job position involves policy making.

The trial is set to begin Feb. 8 before U.S. Judge Malachy E. Mannion in Scranton.

Petrilla returned to her previous job as Butler Township manager soon after her county commissioner term ended in 2011. Urban has served as a county councilman since the county’s home rule government took effect in January 2012.

Skrepenak served a nearly two-year prison sentence on his guilty plea to accepting a $5,000 kickback as a reward for supporting a real estate developer’s entry into a program to delay payment of taxes on a project. He was among more than 30 people nabbed in the county federal corruption probe.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.