State Attorney General Kathleen Kane seems fearless as she prosecutes one-time political warlord Bob Mellow. But only she can reveal her deepest concerns as she takes on the former state senator who for decades wielded political power with ruthless and reckless abandon.
Kane wasn’t always so bold.
Pennsylvania’s first elected Democrat and female attorney general once knelt before the altar of Mellow’s vast government empire. Desperately wanting him to know that she posed no risk to his power or his job, she one day met privately and humbly with the Northeastern Pennsylvania king of corruption. Kane needed to reassure him that she meant no harm and no threat.
Kane told some people about the secret meeting, although she didn’t see fit to tell most of her supporters who wanted her to challenge Mellow in 2010 for his Senate seat. Instead, she backed off, cried real tears and confessed her humiliation to a select few, explaining the sad and embarrassing story of family pressure and fear that Mellow might retaliate.
Kane has never publicly revealed details of that meeting with Mellow.
Now, as Mellow sits in prison after pleading guilty to federal public corruption charges, political observers wonder if he might launch a surprise attack against her credibility as she preens as the state’s newest crime fighter who vows a continuing crackdown on public corruption.
Sources say they felt sorry for Kane back then as she betrayed herself by sacrificing a personal dream based on principle against a man who had none.
The secret meeting took place in the months before Mellow decided to retire from the seat he held in government for almost 40 years, where he served as one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful politicians. That meeting, long before Mellow got indicted and pleaded guilty to political corruption, clearly spelled out that Kane wanted no trouble for herself and the family business, that she unquestioningly accepted Mellow’s reign and would do nothing to challenge it. The meeting halted her political aspirations long before she last year succeeded in her bid for attorney general.
But there was a time, when Mellow ruled as king, that Kane wanted nothing more than to take his jop as senator. I joined supporters who encouraged her to run. One night I met with a small group of people at a Scranton bar to discuss Kane’s brave political plan. Kane sat beside her twin sister as we strategized and eventually toasted her success. Kane was in. The commitment to the campaign was on. Kane vowed to win.
Not long after the barroom meeting, I attended a party where between 70 and 100 people expressed their unwavering support for Kane in her bid to do the unthinkable – challenge and beat Bob Mellow. But something seemed wrong that night. Kane showed up late, stood close to her father and seemed distracted.
A source says he believes she had already met with Mellow and was just going through the motions, not having the heart to tell the cheering crowd that she had agreed to lose even before the official campaign had begun.
Soon after, Kane’s dream suddenly and mysteriously died.
Kane privately told some people what happened.
He husband’s side of the family was livid when they heard about her plan, she said. The Kane family runs a trucking company that since 1990 has handled one of the biggest state contracts for hauling and storing liquor for the state store system. Kane family members expressed anger and fear that her challenge could backfire and hurt the family business, maybe even cause them to lose the multi-million dollar contract. So Kane bowed to their wishes and agreed to quit. So serious were the concerns that she also decided to personally tell Mellow she had changed her mind and would not cause him any reason for concern.
Little did she or he know then what fate had in store for them both.
And now here we are, in a dangerous position where Kane should disclose details to Mellow’s defense team as well as to her own prosecutors who need to prepare for any curve that Mellow and company might throw. Critics say Mellow, who, if convicted on state charges, could spent the rest of his life in state prison, is capable of anything. This is the same man who, during his federal sentencig hearing, allowed the same lawyers he’s using today to manipulate his disabled daughter’s physical and mental condition as a ploy to get the federal judge to take pity on their admitted criminal client.
I do not know who called secret meeting, where exactly it occurred or what exactly was discussed. I don’t know if anyone else sat in on the meeting, noted it in a report or calendar or whether the meeting was recorded.
I do know that by keeping quiet about details of the meeting Kane is putting herself and the current prosecution in a vulnerable position. A former high-profile prosecutor recently told me that seriously legitimate questions abound in the secrecy surrounding the meeting.
Did Kane and Mellow discuss the Kane family trucking business and the state contract? Did Kane or her family members ever make cash campaign contributions to Mellow or attend his famous annual clambake? Did Mellow refer job applicants to the trucking company? Did Kane’s and Mellow’s deep Democratic Party connections play any role in the Kane family keeping the contract?
Last year, according to an Associated Press report, the trucking company pulled in $12.8 million as a result of the contract that is scheduled to expire next year and be put out for bid.
The secret meeting might not matter if Kane had simply disappeared like so many other political losers who turned and ran when Bob Mellow cast his gaze their way. Instead, Kane suddenly reappeared on the political scene and hurtled toward the pinnacle of success.
Kane, through her press office, has failed to respond to my requests for an interview or an explanation about the meeting with Mellow. As long as she hides, the more she risks her credibility as well as the cause of truth, justice and her recently vowed mission to fight corruption.
Frail and feeble as he is, Mellow might have one last dirty trick up his sleeve.
Let’s hope he doesn’t play it on Kane.
And let’s hope Kane doesn’t play one on the good people of the Commonwealth who place faith in her promise to restore the public trust in a state gone toxic with corruption.
Retired and living in Key West, the last thing the guy wanted to talk with me about yesterday was missing money from WVIA when he worked there as a financial officer. When I called and explained a little something about the nature of my inquiry, he said he had no idea what I was talking about.
I repeated his name.
“That’s you, right?”
Yes, he said.
“You’re the guy who worked for more than 20 years at WVIA, right.
I told him I had two very official letters that named him and discussed details about the arrangement that allowed him to repay about $14,000 back in 2007 without the WVIA executives calling the cops.
All of a sudden his memory returned.
The man said the arrangement was supposed to be confidential, that he has a letter that makes it clear that WVIA executive Bill Kelly, the station lawyer and the members of the board of trustees would keep the matter to themselves.
So much for confidentiality.
Kelly last year talked with me on the record in some detail about the incident. He even once mentioned the confidentiality agreement. In turn, I called the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), the agency that oversees WVIA and other public broadcast outlets across the nation, and spoke with a lawyer for the Inspector General’s office.
He seemed interested and told me he would check into the matter. Yesterday when I called, I learned that he has since retired. I’ll call the new chief counsel today.
But the WVIA mystery remains a matter of relevant contention in light of the recent announcement that Kelly will receive an annual salary of $199,000 as the station’s chief fundraiser – a huge amount, according to some supporters and critics of public broadcasting who want to destroy the publicly-funded institution overseen by an act of Congress in 1967.
When I found out last year about the missing money, I contacted state Sen. Lisa Baker, who at the time sat on the WVIA board. I asked about what some people called a theft and considered a cover-up by the board.
Baker quickly shot off a letter to Kelly and the station lawyer asking for an explanation about the deal that took place before she joined the board. Baker has since resigned from the board.
The lawyer and Kelly quickly responded, signing off on a letter that provides their side of the story and explains that no harm came to the station’s reputation and credibility because of their failure to report the matter to state and federal agencies.
That remains a serious matter of opinion.
People who support and donate to WVIA expect that their money will be protected and put to the best use possible. Kelly’s gigantic salary and benefits over the years, let alone today, and the conspiracy of silence to hide the missing money controversy do little to reassure supporters that the public’s best interests are being looked after.
The man in Key West seemed relieved when I told him I didn’t yet need to use his name. But, I explained, I really need to know more about what went on at WVIA during the time he worked there. He said he saw it all at WVIA, both good and bad.
Terrific, I thought. Maybe he can come on the air and talk. I’m still working on that.
Kelly initially agreed to speak with me on the air this week about his salary. Then he refused to return my calls. He had never agreed to talk with me on the air about the missing money or keeping the cover-up quiet.
And the well-known doctor and chairman of the WVIA board of trustees ducked my question twice when I asked him this week off the air if he knew about the missing money. Since he is named in Baker’s letter as having been sent a copy, I imagine that he knows more about it than he was willing to let on when I interrupted his vacation with his grandchildren.
The man in Key West said he took the money by mistake and that as soon as WVIA officials alerted him after his retirement and re-location, he immediately agreed to repay what he owned.
Sources tell me that some WVIA employees made it clear to WVIA management that police should have been called – maybe even the FBI since WVIA receives federal funding. But not only did station executives refuse, Kelly told me he also didn’t even report the incident to the people at CPB who oversee that station.
WVIA boasts of its documentaries about our community. They should make a documentary about this story and enter it in an award contest. Sounds like a sure winner to me.
Facing off against Republicans was easy back when GOP thugs were bashing Big Bird and marauding down Sesame Street with the ease of looters after a summer riot.
Nowadays, WVIA’s “Big Boss” Bill Kelly makes such a common sense defense all the more difficult.
So do board members at the local public broadcasting outlet.
While begging money from dedicated viewers to ensure the continued airing of kids’ programs and other community-minded offerings, Big Boss recently accepted an annual paycheck of $199,000 to serve as hustler emeritus and chief fundraiser.
People who don’t earn such great sums of cash often attack those who do, he told me in an off-the air conversation yesterday that felt like talking to the Queen of England about why she’s got the crown jewels and we don’t.
Big Boss was unapologetic and said he deserves every penny – even after layoffs and cut-backs at WVIA.
I explained that even average public broadcast supporters might have a hard time justifying his paycheck that’s drawn in part from public funds that hard-working people contribute through their federal taxes.
So I suggested that Big Boss come on the air and justify his wealth taken from the public trough. I thought maybe I could convince him to see the light and take a salary cut and, if not, at least expose him for the greedy public servant he seems to be.
Big Boss told me I would have to get permission for him to talk from the chairman of the board - not that he would have to get permission but that I would have to get permission for him to talk with me.
Big Boss’ logic seemed class-backwards but, then again, that’s our Big Boss.
So I called the chairman of the board, interrupting his vacation with his grandchildren. Don’t blame me, I said, blame Big Boss, whom you agreed to reward in light of a crumbling economy and countless coal crackers in your service area who are out of work, out of time and just plain out of luck.
The chairman, who's a locally famous doctor, launched into a lecture about how important Big Boss is to the future of the WVIA enterprise.
At least my medical insurance wasn’t getting billed for his advice, I thought.
But my taxes are.
The chairman said he’d call Big Boss.
And all systems were go for the interview, something Big Boss knows a little something about since he’s in charge of the kissy-face interviews with business people that Big Boss hopes translate into corporate cash contribution to WVIA.
Big Boss is to interviews what Log Cabin syrup is to hotcakes. Nobody leans back in his chair, crosses his legs, dangles his fingers like he’s holding an imaginary cigarette holder on the Riviera and flutters his eyelids like Big Boss.
But behind closed doors it’s all “show me the money.”
Big Boss got snippy during my invitation, by the way, criticizing me for sometimes cutting people off during tense interviews. So I promised to be gentle.
After receiving permission and after the show began, Big Boss left a message for me on my office voice mail. In turn, my producer called Big Boss and left a message telling him to call the show.
The call never came.
My guess is that he was listening and didn’t like what he heard – not just from me but from caller after caller, most of whom support public broadcasting, lambasting him and the privileged posse that authorized his salary.
So, if he won’t call to explain himself why should you call to support his paycheck?
Good question, huh, Big Boss?
Maybe he’ll call today. I’ll invite him because I’m not finished with this story.
Big Boss only renewed my interest in his station and the way they do the people’s business.
Maybe WVIA can make a documentary about the colleague that Big Boss and others once told me took some station money a few years ago. Rather than call police and report a crime, Big Boss and the board of directors called the suspected thief and asked for their money back. He returned the money, Big Boss said, and nobody was the wiser – especially the poor suckers who truly believed that Big Boss and Company took good care of the dollars they contributed to ensure quality community programming.
When it comes to WVIA, it might be time to change the channel.
When you kill a guy you really ought to expect people to ask you about it - especially if you’re running for judge.
Prominent Scranton lawyer, former federal prosecutor and magisterial district judge Jim Gibbons killed a guy.
And now, after winning both the Democratic and Republican nominations in the May 21 primary election, he’s all but a shoo-in for a seat on the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas.
But Gibbons, 55, seems insulted that more and more people are asking about the April 11, 1984 accident that left Jacob T. Topa bleeding on Cedar Avenue after Gibbons slammed into him while Topa was crossing the street.
Topa died in the hospital three days later.
Thirty years later Gibbons’ bid for higher office is alive and well.
Still, his credibility has taken a severe hit.
After ducking my phone calls for three weeks, after I broke the story in two online columns and on the air, Gibbons finally spoke with a local newspaper reporter about the case and the million-dollar wrongful death settlement document that is now missing from the county office charged with safeguarding official court records.
After I requested a copy of the Gibbons settlement last Thursday, Clerk of Judicial Records Mary Rinaldi called to tell me that the report had vanished.
Gibbons also requested a copy and was told about the disappearance. He then went to see county District Attorney Andy Jarbola, who ordered an official investigation into the theft. The soft newspaper story in yesterday’s Times Tribune made it seem as if Gibbons alerted Jarbola to the disappearance.
Jarbola actually knew about the missing court document before Gibbons told him. I had earlier alerted an official at the district attorney’s office about the report. The official dismissed the rumor. But the rumor was true and the file remains missing.
On Tuesday I publicly identified Gibbons on the air as the political candidate who worked diligently with his primary election campaign to keep the story about his role in Topa’s death quiet. I detailed everything I discovered during the three weeks it took for me to feel confident about reporting the details. I also wanted to give Gibbons every opportunity to address this tragedy.
But Gibbons refused to talk with me even after a friend offered to intercede and asked him to speak with me.
Gibbons’ responses in the soft newspaper story that appeared after I first told the story fell short of answering several major questions that still remain. Gibbons told the reporter that he was not drunk at the time of the accident. But we still do not know if he had been drinking in the hours leading up to the crash. Nor do we know why the police failed to test Gibbons for alcohol.
Gibbons also told the reporter that he didn’t try to influence the investigating office by dropping the name of his politically powerful boss – a name the investigating officer made sure to note on his report – when they officer arrived on the scene. Gibbons said he merely answered the question about where he had been before the accident. Gibbons, whose father was a federal judge at the time, was working as a law clerk for federal Judge Richard Conaboy. Gibbons told police he had just dropped off Conaboy at his nearby home.
I left a message yesterday for the vacationing Conaboy – who is a far more powerful judge today than he was 30 years ago – asking if Scranton police had interviewed him after the accident to confirm Gibbons’ story and inquire about Gibbons’ mental and physical condition on the night in question.
That sad night in question remains relevant today.
Gibbons’ defenders have been calling my show for the past two days to berate me on the air for telling a story they do not consider news.
This is news.
That’s why I called Gibbons for the eighth time yesterday to invite him to talk with me on the air. Again, he did not return my call. But I left a message asking him several follow-up questions about the accident and settlement. I also asked who appointed him to sit on the special Interbranch Commission for Juvenile Justice charged with the solemn duty of investigating the “Kids For Cash” scandal in Luzerne County during which two politically powerful county judges sold children into slavery for personal profit.
An alert listener sent me a newspaper article that confirmed how current federal inmate and former state senator Bob Mellow personally appointed Gibbons. Of all the people this admitted criminal and political gangster could have chosen, Mellow chose Gibbons. When this Democratic warlord crashed and burned Gibbons joined the ranks of countless other politically powerful friends of Bob Mellow who simply moved on in their public service without him.
Gibbons’ cruel opportunism now defines him.
And his sad selective silence remains his biggest sin.
When you run for judge, especially after killing a guy, voters expect you to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The other arrived from the dark side of Cedar Avenue in Scranton’s South Side.
When their lives crossed in the early evening on April 11, 1984, only one young man walked away.
The other died three days later from injuries he suffered when the driver’s 1981 Subaru slammed into him as he tried to cross the street.
Almost 30 years later, the privileged man is even more privileged – poised to be elected in November to one of the most powerful political offices in Lackawanna County. Yet, he and his most ardent campaign supporters, also men and women of privilege, continue to conspire to keep quiet what police long ago deemed an accident.
Within four months after the victim’s death, his widow and three small children accepted a settlement that totaled more than $1 million spread over 60 years. A law enforcement source who supports the candidate says that the widow even supported the primary political campaign of the man who killed her husband.
The widow, who still lives in Scranton, failed to return a phone call yesterday requesting comment.
The candidate failed to return several.
In the past three weeks since the May 21 primary election, I have left seven detailed messages for him at three different telephone numbers - at the candidate’s current public office and his two private cell phone numbers.
I agreed when a “friend” of the candidate offered to call him last Thursday and suggest that he sit with me and explain what happened that terrible night. That friend told me yesterday that the candidate told him he absolutely refuses to talk with me.
“He’s worried that you’re going to ambush him,” the friend said.
The candidate is more likely worried that I will ask him questions that he doesn’t want to answer, questions that nobody has ever publicly asked him.
Was he drinking the night of the accident? Did police test him for alcohol? Did he and his politically powerful father visit the widow in the days after the victim’s death? Why agree to a million dollar settlement for an accident that police said wasn’t his fault, an accident for which police said they had no witnesses and took him at his word about what happened? Did he suggest keeping the death quiet during the campaign or did his closest campaign advisors – lawyers like himself - urge him not to talk?
A few days before the election, I received in the mail at my home a copy of the official accident settlement agreement that is filed in Lackawanna County Court. Political rivals of the candidate who also knew about the fatal accident wanted me to break the story before the election. Some political experts believe the candidate would have lost his bid for office had the story erupted.
Campaign workers for two of the candidate’s rivals told me that a man had approached them and offered damaging information about the candidate in exchange for $15,000. The campaign workers said they refused the offer.
And I refused to rush the story. Instead, I found out all that I could and gave the candidate more than enough opportunity to tell his story to voters who deserve to know exactly who our political candidates are when they ask for the public trust. But the candidate dismissed my phone calls and turned down his friend’s suggestion that he speak with me.
Last week I heard from a source close to the race that somebody stole the official court record from the main storage repository.
County Clerk of Judicial Records Mary Rinaldi called me within hours of my requesting the record to report that “the case is missing.” Rinaldi told me Friday that she has no idea how the record disappeared and that a mystery of this kind is rare.
Several sources told me that suspects’ names are circulating throughout the courthouse and the political and legal community.
A source told me yesterday that the candidate recently visited the clerk’s office in the Brooks
Building in downtown Scranton and requested to see the record of his court settlement.
Officials there told him that the document had simply vanished, the source said.
The candidate is not happy, the source said.
District Attorney Andy Jarbola, who signed a widely-circulated letter of support for the candidate during the primary campaign, said yesterday that he also is not happy about the missing file.
“We’re looking into it,” he said.
I interpret that to mean that the county’s chief law enforcement officer has launched a preliminary criminal investigation into the possible theft of an official court document from a supposedly secure county office that is off-limits to the public.
County court employees are able to retrieve court documents from the repository, officials said, but they are required to leave a note identifying themselves.
No such note exists, Rinaldi said.
In my attempts to report this story I have tried my best to be fair. But the candidate refuses to help me understand exactly what happened so long ago as well as during his successful campaign for higher public office.
At 3:15 this afternoon, I will identity the candidate on the air.
Then the people will decide for themselves if this well-respected man who claimed during the campaign to have the highest integrity of all the candidates is deserving of the public trust.
Or, has he simply forgotten how he took the life of a young husband and father, an average man stepping from the shadows and left bleeding on the street, as an above-average young man of privilege told police his version of what happened, dropped the name of a powerful judge for whom he worked and continued living the good life that helped him keep climbing the ladder of success?
Tuesday, June 04, 2013
The plain white business envelope with no return address arrived at my Scranton home on the Saturday before the Tuesday May 21 primary election.
Inside I found a folded 10-page court document from 1984.
Until then I had never seen the name of the dead man referred to in the official record. Almost 30 years after his death, most of us have never heard his name. Although his name is familiar to some important people, it is doubtful that they want to speak publicly about him.
I left three telephone messages for one man who should clearly remember the dead man and his family but he has not returned my calls.
Sources say that the dead man’s widow and three children are living in Scranton.
One source says he spoke with the widow recently and she was willing to speak about the April 11, 1984 death of her 27-year-old husband a few days after a vehicle struck him on Cedar Avenue in the South Side section of Scranton.
Then she suddenly backed out.
One of the dead man’s children later told the source that people were trying to use his mother to hurt “somebody.” The source said he told the man - who was a child when his father was killed - that he only wanted the truth.
But the man refused to cooperate.
The widow spoke to a lawyer who advised her and her family not to speak about the accident, the source said, and she does not want to revisit the terrible time she endured in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
But as bad as life turned for the woman and her three minor children, the court document shows that she was well compensated for her loss.
Just four months after her husband died, a court settlement filed in Lackawanna County court decreed that she receive an immediate cash payment of $90,000 and “beginning January 1, 1987, a monthly payment of $1168.42 for a period of time of sixty (60) years, making a total payment to the surviving wife of $841,298.40.”
“A total payment of $90,000 to the three minor children of the decedent,” is “payable as follows: $30,000 to (child number one) on attaining the age of 18 years on March 9, 1993; $30,000 to (child number two) on attaining the age of 18 years on May 16, 1994; and $30,000 to (child number three) on attaining the age of 18 on November 4, 1997.”
The court document confirms that the total paid to the “surviving wife” and children comes to a “total value of $1,021,298.40.”
Some people wanted this story to be told before the election. But I didn’t have enough time to uncover the facts and figures I needed to be fair and to offer the people involved an opportunity to tell their stories.
After all these years, the man's death remains a contemporary tale.
Another source said he was told by a Scranton city police officer that no police report exists to document the terrible event that night on Cedar Avenue. A law enforcement source told me that he would not be surprised if no investigative report exists because in those days bad things could and did happen at the Scranton Department.
When I checked the county records, a clerk told me that the settlement document I possess is the only record available about the settlement.
Then a source told me last week that the record is missing.
I’ll check to see if that is true.
I’ll also check to see if the police report is missing as well.
The settlement occurred on behalf of a young defendant who had a bright future even if the court settlement alleges that the “petitioner’s claim is the alleged negligence of the defendant in the operation of his motor vehicle, thereby striking and fatally injuring the decedent.”
Was that alleged negligence thoroughly investigated by Scranton police? What were the circumstances of the incident? Where had the driver been before crashing into the man? With whom? Where and when did he stop his vehicle after striking the man? Did he make a statement to police? Who was his lawyer? Was the accident his fault? What did he do for a living? Did her come from a good family?
And, of course, where is that man today? How has his life progressed? Did he find the bright future that those who knew him then swore awaited him?
These are all relevant questions that have recently arisen in my mind with the arrival of a plain white, business envelope with no return address that showed up in the mailbox at my house on the Saturday before the Tuesday primary election.