Months-old Luzerne County ethics complaint still in envelope

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Luzerne County Courthouse -

Luzerne County’s ethics commission received a complaint in July, but nobody has even unsealed the envelope to read it yet.

The reason: the envelope must be opened by an outside attorney under the council-adopted ethics code. And the commission has been unable to find lawyers, even though it has posted repeated public advertisements.

Due to the pending complaint, the commission voted this week to authorize the county law office to try to negotiate a contract with an outside attorney who may be interested in the assignment. In the meantime, the commission will review options to permanently address the difficulty of finding lawyers.

Council added the provision requiring outside attorneys in 2014 after critics questioned the legality of the ethics code that had been adopted by council shortly after the January 2012 switch to a home rule government structure.

Under the initial code, the ethics commission handled both investigations and rulings on alleged violations.

The solution in the new version was the commission’s appointment of a panel of three attorneys who are not employed by the county.

The commission must select the three lawyers through a public request for proposals and appoint them on a rotating basis as complaints are lodged, the updated ethics code states.

To maintain confidentiality, the code requires the envelope of any communication addressed to the commission to be date-stamped and submitted — unopened — to the designated commission attorney.

The assigned lawyer must then handle the initial investigation and recommendation on whether complaints should be dismissed or upgraded to formal complaints heard by the commission.

County assistant solicitor Mark Makowski told the commission the county publicly advertised for outside attorneys three times, most recently in October, and no non-employee responses were received.

Makowski said the administration has tried to “get the word out” about the need for attorneys. The lawyer who may be interested did not respond to the request for proposals and may be retained at $150 per hour to handle the pending complaint, the board decided recently. Makowski said the attorney would be identified if he accepts the temporary contract.

Citizen Walter Griffith criticized the delay addressing the pending case, saying it could be an important matter. A strong system to police ethical concerns was one of the key selling points of the home rule government, he said.

Another citizen, Brian Shiner, questioned both the legality of the code’s outside attorney requirement and the commission’s plan to deviate from it by hiring one attorney. He urged the commission to report concerns to council.

Commission members said they will take the feedback under advisement.

Shiner and Griffith alerted council of the issue at Tuesday’s council meeting.

County Manager C. David Pedri, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and Controller Michelle Bednar serve on the ethics commission along with two council-appointed citizens — Republican Christine Seidel and Democrat Sean Ziller. Seidel said she is not seeking reappointment when her term expires in January, which will leave a vacancy.

Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said she had not received any notification of concerns from commission members, and she concurred the failure to address a complaint for months was unacceptable.

Council will review the matter and discuss other ways to timely process ethics complaints with adequate checks and balances, she said.

Luzerne County Courthouse County Courthouse

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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

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