I told you I’d let you know what U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Peter Smith said after I alerted him to a dangerous breach of security in his ongoing federal public corruption task force.
I ’m sorry to report that Smith declined to speak with me about what federal and other law enforcement officials claim is a weak link in the criminal justice system that is charged with upholding and restoring the public trust in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a region long poisoned by public corruption.
I sent Smith the column I wrote, published online and read out loud on the air. I asked Smith to read it. I asked to talk with him about what I know. I asked sincerely and respectfully.
Smith responded quickly, sending me a short email saying that he read my column. He brushed off my interview request. He thanked me for sending him the column. And he wished me the “best,” as I had wished him in my short formal communication.
Essentially he told me to stick it, to go screw myself because for whatever the reason he did not want to be bothered with what I had to say.
Maybe I’m being too defensive. Maybe crime fighter Smith launched a rapid-fire investigation into the matter. Maybe he dispatched a squad of aggressive agents on the case. Maybe he called a meeting and read his staff the riot act.
But I doubt it.
If Smith read anybody the riot act he likely raised hell about how I found out about the story that has swept law enforcement circles for more than a year. That’s right. I said more than a year.
If Smith hadn’t yet heard the troubling story before I told him, he might want to get out more. As for prosecutors who have heard the story, they might want to ask themselves why they sat on the news and failed to do anything of substance to correct the matter to make sure it never happened again because if – and when - it does happen again, somebody could get hurt.
A good cop could get killed because a bad cop can’t be trusted.
Instead, I imagine the in crowd at the federal courthouse is laughing and mocking my attempt to blow the whistle on a real leak they should have fixed. Keep in mind that by mocking me they’re mocking you. What they fail to see is that by mocking us they’re mocking the very system they are paid to serve and uphold. What they fail to see is the damage they do to that system and to the public trust by belittling and trivializing serious people who want desperately to believe in and serve that same system. What they ignore and dismiss is the importance of communication between them and us. What they damage sometimes seems beyond repair.
Not that long ago these same powerful prosecutors put out a press release asking for our help in uncovering behavior that might be criminal. They came to us. And we responded with waves of support and a simple, yet brave, willingness to join them as good citizens in a behind-the-lines mission to root out the political and business gangsters who rule our culture of corruption.
Now, with the job far from over, not only do they turn their backs on us, they turn their backs on each other.
Some good cops and others are not happy about this.
Not that long ago these same feds received information about another alleged bad cop. To their credit, they investigated. But they came back empty, clearing the cop of a crime that some people still believe he committed.
He’s still a cop.
And now the “good guys” turn away again, this time from an accusation by other cops who say one of their own helped a now convicted criminal run a license plate on an FBI surveillance vehicle used to help track the criminal and record his voice. The accused cop denied to me that he “ran the tag” but said he believes that a law enforcement official did help the criminal and that FBI agents know the accomplice’s identity.
He’s still a cop, too.
In a manner of speaking so is prosecutor Peter Smith, who, believe it or not, has turned away once again from yet another accusation that could get somebody killed. I am in possession of a letter Smith recently sent to a Scranton man who told Smith about some serious accusations about the men who run the business where he worked.
Six other co-workers have signed statements accusing the men of demanding daily cash kickbacks from the cash the men collect in the course of their shifts. The payments have occurred for years, the men say. They call the transactions “extortion” and wonder if their bosses paid federal taxes on the big money they kicked back in exchange for staying employed. One of the bosses has had past problems with the IRS, a source says.
Prosecutor Smith called the claims a disagreement about conditions of employment and said that no criminal investigation is warranted.
I disagree with that call and imagine that you do, as well. But what we think doesn’t matter to the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. What do we know anyway?
We’re just good citizen taxpayers trying to believe in a system that all too often lets us down – hard-working, law-abiding people who no longer matter to the eagle eyes of the law.
Uncle Sam has a major problem in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Some law enforcement agents working the task force investigating public corruption worry that they’ve got an informer in their midst. And the U.S. Justice Department better investigate before somebody gets killed.
But, federal agents who have knowledge about an incident that happened during the “Kids for Cash” investigation have apparently decided against singling out the officer who might have tipped off one of the main targets of the probe.
I know that officer’s name and spoke with him yesterday.
That seasoned investigator denies what other seasoned officers accuse him of doing.
Here’s what happened: One day two FBI agents sat in a surveillance vehicle as a wired cooperating witness met with the main targets in the case. The agents listened and recorded the crucial conversation that took place inside a Luzerne County condominium.
Suddenly one of the targets looked out the window and spotted the suspicious vehicle. He and the others panicked. Desperate, he went outside to see what he could see. Thankfully the agents had covered the windows he could not see the agents inside as they sat in silence after turning off any audio equipment that he might hear.
Thankfully they had locked the doors because they heard him try all the handles.
Heading back inside, the future convicts agreed that they better get out of there.
And they did.
That audio surveillance tape was played in a federal trial in Scranton. Everybody knew that the defendant almost busted the cops who would eventually bust him. What they didn’t hear was what police sources say happened next.
One of the targets of the investigation rushed back to Luzerne County where he allegedly contacted the high-ranking police officer. The target asked him to run the license plate number of the vehicle that had just given the target fits.
The officer did as he was told, entering his official code number into the national vehicle tracking network that police use daily to help them enforce the law. As simple as running a plate number is, the task is relegated only to those who officially need to know the confidential details contained in the official records. To do otherwise might constitute a crime or, at the very least, a serious and dangerous breach of ethics.
Since FBI surveillance vehicles are registered to fictitious corporations so they don’t come back as FBI surveillance vehicles, the investigation was not compromised.
I have not yet been able to confirm that the target of the investigation suspected anything out of the ordinary. I also don’t know if the police officer even reported back to him.
But as soon as the officer ran the plate, sources say the overseers of the NCIC system knew the plate had been run. And they contacted FBI agents in Philadelphia who contacted agents in Scranton who allegedly went to the officer and asked why he ran the plate of an FBI surveillance vehicle that was part of a massive federal public corruption task force investigation in which he was not involved.
Even though the officer admitted that he ran the plate, sources say nothing happened to him – a man who other officers claim willingly helped a gangster who tried to compromise the federal investigation into his crimes.
I’m told that the FBI agents inside the vehicle reported the incident to their superiors. I’m told that other federal officials, including some prosecutors, also know what happened. I’m told that the case is closed.
Still, the story is the talk of the federal building in Scranton where Justice Department offices house FBI, IRS, DEA and other federal agents. And not everybody is happy with what they see as a security breach that could have gotten agents killed by a sloppy cop who operates at a high law enforcement security level.
The officer whom other officers name as the culprit yesterday denied “unequivocally” that he ran the plate. He said he has heard the story himself and has “no clue” as to why fellow officers would finger him. He said he believes that a law enforcement officer ran the plate, however, and that the FBI knows that officer’s identity.
So why not do something to make sure the officer never attempts to compromise a future investigation? Why not take formal disciplinary action against the officer? Why risk morale and safety by covering up for a bad cop who is part of the culture of corruption that task force officials are supposedly fighting?
The ongoing federal public corruption probe is charged with many missions, including the restoration of the public trust. But how can anyone expect the public to trust the government when government agents don’t even trust each other?
Good question, huh?
I’ll let you know what U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Peter Smith says when I ask him.
Some time ago I took it upon myself to announce on my radio show that I was hereby banning Vice President Joe Biden from his Scranton hometown, the hard coal haven Biden left at age 10 but that he continues to use and abuse whenever the need arises to try to ingratiate himself to America’s working-class voters.
I had had enough of Biden’s blatant manipulation of good people who too often croon and swoon whenever Biden goes into his scrappy kid from Scranton routine. To this, day President Barack Obama continues to enable his sappy sidekick in their attempts to win votes from people whose struggle to make ends meet continues through thick and thin.
What put me over the top was when Biden refused to apologize for telling the world that he had relatives who worked in the Northeastern Pennsylvania coal mines. During the 2008 campaign I tried my best to get specifics about the claim because maybe Biden was telling the truth. After repeated attempts to get details, the state communications director for the Obama/Biden campaign finally told me that Biden had misspoken. That’s what your defense lawyer tells the judge at your guilty plea. But most admitted criminals fess up when they face the music and vow to sin no more.
Biden just kept smiling. No apology came my way. So I banned Biden from my radio show.
Of course, the ban on his homecoming was non-biding. I lacked the official power to keep him from stalking the streets where I live – a truly sacred place where my grandfather emigrated from Ireland to mine coal for 45 years and where I have five generations of family, the place where I chose to move when I left California and could have moved elsewhere.
Many people with Scranton roots have family who worked in the mines. Too many of their beloved family members died laboring in those black hell holes. Too many came up maimed. Too many died choking for air because their lungs had turned black from toxic coal dust – including my grandfather.
My father and some of his brothers briefly dug coal and worked underground in uninspected mines, risking their lives to help their family and their nation. We whose roots go into the coal mines wear that struggle proudly. We don’t take kindly to imposters. For better or for worse, we carry a grudge.
Now, three weeks from Election Day, it looks like Biden has abandoned Scranton once again. Not that I’m sorry to see him go, but serious principle is involved here. Although Biden still uses us to try to get him and his boss re-elected, Biden and Barack are not expected to campaign here before the election. They apparently believe that we Scrantonians are gullible enough to automatically vote for them.
Maybe some are, but that’s not the Scranton spirit that I love.
I love the real scrappy Scranton.
Not only will I not vote for this duo, with three weeks to go until the election, I’m two weeks from banning Barack from my radio show. I’m a leftist FDR Irish-American “ourselves alone” Democrat, by the way, and Barack has not even come close to persuading me to vote for him. If he doesn’t come here and ask for my vote, he loses my vote, something too precious to just give away. Like the underground miner in Scranton, those days are gone.
The Republican ticket, which has more in common with the Manson family than most Scranton families, won’t get my vote, either.
I might write in John Mitchell, the late, great champion of labor and defender of human rights whose statue stands usually ignored on Courthouse Square.
Pennsylvania might no longer be a swing state and Northeastern Pennsylvania the pulse by which White House life is gauged, but we’re a bristling battleground even in off-election years. Our fight continues no matter who’s elected. Decade after decade, good citizens in hard coal country battle political corruption, patronage, nepotism and worse that continues year after year as our elected and appointed political and business leaders go to prison for pillaging the public trust.
And some of them did have relatives who worked in the mines.
Biden called my show back in 2007, I believe, when few people took him seriously for higher office and he was trying to sell his autobiography at a Scranton book signing. Biden even lied during that interview, telling me that he listens to my show whenever he gets time in his Senate office. I had no doubt that until we spoke on the air, Biden had never heard of me in his life.
Barack called my show in 2008. We talked about whether he had transcended race and got off cigarettes. I had seven whole minutes with the man who would be president.
So here’s the deal: Barack has two weeks to call my show and ask me and my neighbors for our votes. He still might not get them but the call will show that he cares enough to ask. Take us for granted, though, and Barack’s looking just like Biden. Considering the president’s first debate performance, he might crave the comparison.
If Barack fails to make the call, I’m banning him from the show for all time. Then he and that crappy kid from Scranton can spend the whole week before the election with the whole world knowing that Scranton called them out then cast them out, exiling them from the Scranton airwaves because they’re simply not up to the job or the expectations of hardcore Scranton voters.
You want to carry that burden around for the rest of your life, Barack?
Never forget that Scranton isn’t Chicago.
We’re scrappier than your town and Biden’s fantasyland put together.
If things go as planned on Nov. 30 – and, in hard coal country we know to expect the unexpected – former Democratic Party warlord Bob Mellow will stand before a federal judge and receive his sentence. The longtime state senator and admitted criminal will likely appear weak and contrite (at least as contrite as this degenerate gangster can appear) for ravaging the public trust and using state Senate staffers to aid and abet him in the commission of his crimes.
Although Mellow copped a plea, his victims – us – still don’t know the identities of the public servants who helped him carry out his crimes. For all we know they are still on the public payroll, making decisions that impact the lives of hard-working, decent, law-abiding Pennsylvanians.
The judge should sentence Mellow to a lengthy prison term. But I don’t expect that to happen. I hope I’m wrong but I will not be surprised if, for whatever the reasons that Mellow’s slick former federal prosecutor lawyer offers, Mellow does not serve a single day behind the wire.
Attorney Sal Cognetti Jr. might dramatically beg the mercy of the court, arguing that his client is ill and, at 70, cannot suffer the awkward strain of prison that is not even close to the hard-wood paneled offices where Mellow plied his treacherous trade. No mention will likely be made of the countless people who suffer the consequences and harsh aftermath of Mellow’s reign of terror that mocked democracy and set back progress that will not recover in my lifetime.
Mellow might speak, offering a statement in which he will apologize to his family and make a lame act of contrition for his sins. In case you forgot, most taxpayers are not part of the Mellow family tree.
Then we will close the book on another sordid chapter in the pornographic saga that
should shame all good men and women who expect more of government. But even otherwise decent people will remain silent. Most will not utter a bad word about Mellow.
Some, including elected state officials from Mellow’s sordid old circle of friends, might even talk about the good he did, stressing how that good far outweighs the bad. They might even have written a letter on official stationery to the judge, outlining the many good deeds that resulted in the many buildings and other places named in honor of Mellow.
No, they will write, Mellow has suffered enough. Let him retire, they will say, to a soft place where he can dine among friends on linguini with clam sauce rather than cooking cups of noodles over the steam of his prison cell radiator while worrying that some rough seasoned con who never even voted might steal his dinner
To which I say, “Let him eat Ramen.”
Lock him up and when he returns – if he returns – let’s give him a big welcome home surprise. Every time he turns around, from a park to a street to a theater named in his “honor,” let’s make sure he sees that his name has disappeared.
By dishonoring our community, by disgracing the very people he was duty-bound to serve, Mellow must pay by knowing we have not forgotten what he did to us, not for us. By standing up to local tyranny, we will set an example, make an example of him, to show future generations of wannabe public outlaws that we will be vigilant, brave and unyielding in our fight against corruption.
Our one small step for community, our giant step for restoring the public trust will begin by stripping the Mellow name from every place it now is visible in our towns. Among others, there’s a wellness center at Marywood University, a street and a park. Then there is the glorious theater at Lackawanna College in the center of downtown Scranton, the county seat where Mellow once held great power and probably still strikes fear into the hearts of many otherwise unflappable business and political leaders.
The former college president was a Mellow confident. The current president was a Mellow confident. The vice-chairman on the board of directors was a Mellow confident. Others who grace the masthead on the list of trustees also are likely indebted in one way or another to Mellow.
Now they must decide. Will they stand for changing the culture of corruption that created Mellow? Or will they cower and try to hide, refusing to take responsibility? Will they work publicly to restore the luster of their college name or will they try to dance around the dreadful shame that Mellow brought to their reputation? Will they set an honorable example for the brightest young students who might wonder why their school allows the name of an admitted federal felon to grace the centerpiece theater in the heart of their campus?
I left a telephone message yesterday for college President Mark Volk, inviting him to call the show at his leisure so we can talk about how I can help him help his school. Volk just enjoyed a huge induction ceremony so I figure he’s ready to talk about the huge indictment ceremony that captured Mellow.
Mellow appointed Volk to the state ethics commission, by the way. Volk – who survived the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and by all accounts behaved honorably – should be ready and able to help us in Northeastern Pennsylvania survive the scourge of corruption that hijacked democracy and killed so many dreams. We’ll see if Volk and others at the college are willing to declare a renewed war on state-sponsored terrorism that will once and for all establish liberty and justice for all in hard coal country.
Today I expect to start calling other lesser known Lackawanna College trustees, to invite them to enlist in this war. Will they join us in removing Mellow’s name from the theater?
A relatively new Lackawanna County judge sits on the board of trustees. I want to call her first. Will she help?
More and more powerful men and women in our community care less and less about what we think of them. That’s why fewer and fewer of them will appear on the air with me to answer questions about why they do the things they do.
But deep down inside their teetering psyches, they actually do care. Their absence marks their fear. Their unwillingness to defend their positions signals weak, self-absorbed egotism. Above all, their refusal to account for themselves shows a pathetic disregard for the people they claim to serve.
My list of timid public servants and corporate bullies is growing.
That list of those who run and duck and hide is embarrassing in a region that craves leadership and needs all the help we can get from those well-polished posers upon whose political and business connections we depend to get us where we need to be to succeed culturally, politically, economically and even socially.
But what truly cultured intellect wants to rub elbows with some of our “best and brightest”
Do you really believe that a roomful of board chairpersons who lead medical schools across the country really want to hang with Commonwealth Medical College chairman of the board Louis DeNaples? Do you really think good citizen chairs would marvel with respect over his criminal record, his federal felony conviction and his perjury charge for lying about his relationship with Mafia figures – a charge that mysteriously disappeared with no detailed explanation?
Congressman Tom “Casino” Marino, friend and former DeNaples lawyer, also refuses to answer my questions after I caught him in a huge lie on the air about his relationship with DeNaples when Marino was the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania that should have kept Mario from being elected in the 10th District.
Do you believe that the four unnamed state Senate staffers who once helped admitted criminal and longtime Senate “leader” Bob Mellow break the law would earn respect from professional public service peers nation-wide?
We can’t even find out the identities of those four devious staffers who might now work for state Sen. John Blake, Mellow’s hand-picked replacement who refuses to answer questions about whether he picked up those deceitful abusers of the public trusty.
Blake refuses to answer my question. One of his aides ever refused to tell me if he is, in fact, one of those treacherous government workers in whom we now are expected to place faith – including state Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, who also refuses to answer my questions.
The treacherous timid are everywhere.
My congressman Lou Barletta refuses to come on the show and take calls from senior citizens who worry that Barletta will kill their life-saving Medicare and Social Security. Hazleton state Rep. Tara Toohill refuses to answer specific questions about her professional relationship with admitted felon and federal prisoner Mike Conahan or respond to questions about whether she has unpaid school loans.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton refuses to talk with me ever since I cornered him on Public Square and asked abut the letter of reference he wrote for admitted criminal and longtime Leighton friend Bill Brace before Brace headed off to a federal prison cell.
And, of course, admitted criminal and notorious banker in the “Kids for Cash” tragedy Rob Mericle refuses to respond to my calls about his continued success on the business scene as he awaits his own sentencing in federal court – a sentencing that has been delayed because the feds need Mericle as a rat in the case of former state Sen. Ray Musto, who did talk with me when I reached him at home some months ago to ask why if he is too sick to go to trial on federal corruption charges he showed up smiling and shaking hands at the local gambling casino with his wife.
I don’t expect Musto to take further calls from me, by the way.
Some of you claim that people won’t talk with me because it’s me.
If that’s true I’ll wear their refusal as a badge of honor in a corrupt place that needs aggressive question asked by aggressive word warriors. Who else is going to try to hold these nefarious chieftains of corruption accountable if not us? People depend on the press, as well we should. Media, in many ways, are all that’s left in a region where bad regularly wins over good and gangsters are forgiven no matter what their crimes.
I sometimes want to flip, to run amok and lay waste to evil like a wild Irish revolutionary with nothing left to lose. But we have much to lose if we ever lose focus or, worse, give up. So, I, like you, must pick my battles and do my best to work and fight within the system. I said it before and I’ll say it again. We likely won’t win. But we won’t lose, either, not as long as we continue to show up, to fight and show these powerful cowards that we are not afraid.
Honor comes to peasants when they make it clear that they cannot be bought or scared, that they are willing to go down fighting and would rather die on their feet than live on their knees.
Not everyone can do that.
People struggle daily as they worry about their jobs, their families and their lives.
Almost hidden in the crowd of wild adults, the girl seemed small and so very young.
I don’t know what grade she is in or that she even attends William Prescott Elementary School in the Hill Section of Scranton. But it’s a fair guess to say that she is, indeed, a pupil at the toxic elementary that is mold-infested and will close, hopefully only temporarily, by the end of the month.
The child sat on the edge of her seat Monday night with her hands folded politely in her lap. Taking in the anger, she stared at the line of tense school directors assembled at a couple of long cafeteria-style tables pushed together at the front of the room.
I wanted her to step to the microphone. I wanted her to speak. I wanted to hear her tiny voice tell the adults to make the madness stop. The nerve-racking yelling, fear and raw emotion felt like a dull dentist’s needle. The incompetence, blame and sheer stupidity overwhelmed common sense. The thought of black mold made it hard to think and breath.
I wondered if the child was afraid to go back to school. I wondered if she had any idea what she was up against. I wondered if she would get hurt more than she has been hurt already.
But she remained politely in her seat, watching, listening and feeling whatever she felt.
I stood with my back to the wall like a gunfighter in a cowboy saloon where a chair could fly across the room and at my head at any minute. Had that happened, though, I probably would not have been the target.
Scranton School Board president Bob Lesh stood front and center like an undefeated dunk talk champion. Lesh, throwing insults and crude defensive comebacks at the crowd, was the enemy and the people knew it.
Eventually he apologized for his temper and even uttered a “Semper fi, ooh-rah” to a former U.S. Marine who responded with his own “Ooh-rah” utterance after taking the microphone to discuss his concerns about his child who attends the school.
But it might be too late for Lesh, who is not always faithful to the public service oath he uttered after his last re-election.
A larger concern is whether it’s too late for the school – and maybe even for some of the kids whose parents complained about illness they worry could be caused by toxic mold that has the potential to crush a little lung.
To whatever credit he can muster nowadays, Lesh returned my call yesterday and answered all my questions on the air.
Whatever Lesh lacks in book smarts, he’s an astute political animal who understands what it takes to stay in the Scranton political game the way he has for the 16 years he said he’s been in the “education” business.
Yes, he admitted, during that time he has acted as a go-between for job candidates who came to him for precious positions at the school district.
And yes, if given the chance, he would hire Jeff Brazil all over again at a salary of almost $75,000 a year. Brazil is the Lesh political ally who got the plumb job that wasn’t advertised, for which no applications were received and for which no interview was conducted and then went on to receive the March mold report that he didn’t bother to read and then filed in the wrong filing cabinet.
Black mold then took on a life of its own, growing and thriving during the subsequent six months before the kids returned to the dangerous building to start a new year in a place now known as Toxic Elementary.
Lesh said he has learned big lessons as a result of the scandal. But he has no intention of resigning or allowing the one or two board directors who are supposedly plotting his demise to run him out of power.
That’s just not the way Lesh rolls. A classic neighborhood guy who drives a bus for a living, Lesh seems to relish a good brawl no matter who gets sucker-punched in the crossfire. Recalling a time when inside politics controlled all public positions and contracts in this city, Lesh is an old-time fixer whose aspirations are not grandiose.
Before the other night when he flipped and lost it – unsuccessfully trying to adjourn the meeting and seeming lost his colleagues refused to follow him out the door- I last saw a smiling Lesh standing by the stage at Scranton High School waiting for President Barack Obama to show up for a rally.
Lesh likes being a minor political boss in shadows of the spotlight who can do and receive favors. Saloon culture still rules here. Drinks for the house still win votes. And a custodian’s job in every pot as long as that pot is loaded with campaign contributions is one reason the school district employs 129 full-time custodians (as well as temporary custodians) at a salary of about $45,000 a year plus benefits and overtime.
The custodial union chief, by the way, said yesterday on the air that she has no idea if politics has anything to do with district hiring. It used to, she said, but she doesn’t know about now.
Lesh then called and put any rumor of fairness to rest when he said that politics “absolutely” greases the skids for an undisclosed number of district hires.
My advice to the little girl lost in the crowd – a child to whom Lesh said yesterday he apologized – is to show up at the next meeting wearing a “Bob Lesh for Mayor” t-shirt.
Maybe a city government job looms in her future.
Lesh would no doubt end up a loser if he ran for higher office. But, the little girl and her classmates would understand. They have already lost their sense of safety, security and comfort, might conceivably lose their health and will soon lose their school.
When it comes to losers, every child at Toxic Elementary can relate to every Scranton school director who let down the kids, themselves and our once-proud and mighty city.