Citizen files numerous Luzerne County ethics complaints

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com

Kingston resident and regular council meeting attendee Brian Shiner announced Wednesday he has filed 34 ethics complaints against Luzerne County Council members and administrators, maintaining that they keep ignoring home rule charter requirements.

“The 11-member elected council, the legislative branch, appears incapable of reading and comprehending the very document that created our new government,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

Shiner accused council of relying solely on charter interpretations from solicitors hired by the executive branch, and he questions the legal basis of their opinions.

The complaints are all centered on a board appointment and contract involving Dominic J. Yannuzzi, Shiner said.

Council appointed Yannuzzi to an unpaid seat on the county Flood Protection Authority on Oct. 20 and renewed a lease Tuesday to keep the Hazleton Active Adult Center in a downtown Hazleton property owned by the nonprofit Greater Hazleton Senior Citizens Services Inc. Yannuzzi is president of the nonprofit.

Shiner argues the contract renewal violated a section of the county ethics code that says authority members cannot have an interest in a public contract if they are authorized to exercise discretion over the contract.

The charter was violated, he asserted, because council never disclosed the conflict and sought public comment before the October authority appointment.

County solicitors said they researched the county charter and ethics code, case law and the state ethics act and concluded there is no conflict because Yannuzzi has no ownership in the Hazleton building and does not receive a salary as president of the nonprofit.

Yannuzzi also disclosed his nonprofit role in his application for the authority seat, the solicitors said. Shiner maintains some disclosure boxes on the application were not properly completed.

Yannuzzi attended Tuesday’s council meeting but did not speak. He has declined comment on the matter.

Shiner said additional filings will be made with the ethics commission and county Court of Common Pleas. He urged lawyers to contact him if they are willing to assist, anonymously if needed, saying he is pursuing the action as a resident with limited financial resources.

Ethics commission

It’s unclear when the complaints will be addressed, due to issues with the ethics commission.

Another complaint has remained sealed in its envelope since July because the commission has been unable, despite repeated attempts, to find three outside attorneys not employed by the county as required under the council-adopted ethics code.

Council added this provision to address complaints that the commission handled both investigations and rulings. Assigned to cases on a rotating basis, the attorneys must unseal complaint envelopes, investigate and recommend whether cases should be dismissed or upgraded to formal matters heard by the commission.

County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said this week one lawyer recently responded to a request for proposals, and ethics commission approval is required for that contract to take effect.

County Manager C. David Pedri, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and Controller Michelle Bednar serve on the ethics commission along with two council-appointed citizens, one Democrat and one Republican. Citizen Sean Ziller, a Democrat, serves until March 2020. The Republican seat is open because citizen Christine Seidel’s term expired in January, and she did not seek reappointment.

A council committee met this week to start discussing revisions to county codes, including the ethics one.

Committee Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck recommended the committee review ethics codes in other counties and consider different formats due to problems finding three attorneys. A strong ethics code was a key component of the home rule government that took effect in January 2012, she said.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

jandes@timesleader.com

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

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