Luzerne County Council settles Piazza suit for $56K

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com
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A Luzerne County Council majority approved a $56,000 settlement Tuesday to end Leonard Piazza’s litigation contesting his 2012 termination as county election director.

Piazza sued the county in 2013, arguing his firing was political and stemmed from his inquiries into then-county controller Walter Griffith’s campaign finance reports. The county maintained Piazza was terminated for exceeding the scope of his authority by conducting a “clearly retaliatory” review of Griffith’s campaign reports in response to Griffith’s plans to audit the election office.

Council had deadlocked 5-5 in a vote to settle the litigation for the same amount in August, when Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck was absent. Matters stuck in a tie can be voted on again if the council makeup changes following an election, which occurred when new members Chris Perry, Sheila Saidman and Matthew Vough took office in January.

Only 10 members were present Tuesday because Saidman was absent, but six ended up approving the settlement: Eugene Kelleher, Tim McGinley, Perry, Robert Schnee, Vough and Jane Walsh Waitkus.

Voting no were council members Edward Brominski, Harry Haas, McClosky Houck and Stephen A. Urban.

Council members held a closed-door executive session to discuss the proposed settlement immediately before the vote. They did not publicly debate the matter after they emerged.

County Manager C. David Pedri said the county’s only remaining expense toward the settlement will be $19,000, which is the amount remaining to meet a $150,000 insurance deductible.

Griffith criticized the settlement during public comment, saying he had been informed by county legal counsel in the past that the county’s likelihood of prevailing at trial was a “slam dunk.” Piazza should be “held accountable,” he said.

Acceptance of Piazza’s proposed settlement was recommended by the county’s outside legal counsel and administration to avoid the possibility of tens of thousands of dollars in additional legal fees for trial and potentially appeals.

Two citizens — Brian Shiner and Sam Troy — questioned the settlement of this case and other litigation in recent months, saying it could lead to an increase in frivolous suits.

Tax collector

The bonding of newly elected Hazle Township tax collector Ryan DeCosmo also came up Tuesday.

DeCosmo had originally turned in a bond issued to his father, prior township elected collector Michael DeCosmo, who also serves as county Democratic chairman. County Controller Michelle Bednar released an audit Feb. 9 concluding this bond was invalid because state law requires bonds be in an elected collector’s own name.

Ryan DeCosmo submitted a bond in his own name last week, but it will cost the three taxing bodies a combined $81,722 in 2018, compared to $7,208 for his father last year.

Pedri said DeCosmo has agreed to forego pay so the county does not have to shoulder an increase of approximately $24,630 for its share of the bond. County officials will discuss a solution to avoid a repeat of the problem in the remaining three years of his term, Pedri said.

McClosky Houck asked if there is any issue with DeCosmo’s initial presentation of someone else’s bond.

Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said the administration has “no power to prosecute that.”

Haas described the original bond submission as “kind of egregious” and also questioned if any action was warranted.

Urban commended Bednar for examining the bond and said someone should review the bond submitted under the elder DeCosmo’s name.

Michael DeCosmo has said he received clearance from attorneys before his son turned in the first bond.

Councilman Kelleher also thanked Bednar and said he is curious if DeCosmo misunderstood or did not realize the requirement for a bond to be in his name.

“I’m hoping it wasn’t fraudulent,” Kelleher said.

The bond for the Hazle Township collector is 11 times higher, Kelleher noted. If government entities are going to continue to rely on elected collectors, state legislators should impose a law requiring candidates to publicly disclose the cost of their bonding when they run for tax collector, he said.

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https://www.psdispatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/web1_LeonardPiazza-2.jpgPiazza

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.