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Taxpayers demand action in suspicious gas pumping case

By   /   March 4, 2014  /   No Comments

AP file photo

RUNNING ON FUMES: Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Mayor Tom Leighton acknowledges he didn’t adequately track the gas he used to fill his personal vehicle, which he also uses for municipal business in lieu of taking a city car.

 

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Some Wilkes-Barre taxpayers say they are tired of waiting for local prosecutors to determine whether a crime occurred when thousands of gallons of gasoline were pumped from the city’s public works yard without proper documentation — some of it used by the mayor.

One local activist wants Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane to look into the fuel issue, worried that Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has intentionally extended her investigation or has been compromised by a potential conflict of interest within her office.

Charlotte Raup, the leader of Wilkes-Barre Crime Watch Coalition, penned a letter to Kane last week asking the state’s top law enforcement official to intervene as Salavantis enters her 19th month looking into the matter.

“The citizens of Wilkes-Barre would like to let you know that corruption did not stop in Luzerne County; It is alive and well,” Raup wrote to Kane.

The AG’s office declined to comment.

AP file photo

NO COMMENT: One local activist worries that Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has intentionally extended her investigation or has been compromised by a potential conflict of interest within her office.

Salavantis also has given no sign that she’s willing to cede authority to state investigators. Instead, she’s extended her investigation after initially aiming to complete it by the new year.

Frank Sorick, a former mayoral candidate and president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, said he wonders whether the district attorney is dragging out the investigation until the two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses is up.

“That seems to be what’s going on here,” Sorick said. “God, I hope not.”

Salavantis didn’t return messages seeing comment. A woman who answered the phone in her office Monday referred calls to Wilkes-Barre officials and said that Salavantis — despite making several public statements about the case — couldn’t comment about an ongoing investigation.

The fuel fiasco began in July 2012 after The Times-Leader discovered the city couldn’t account for 18,000 gallons of fuel.

Mayor Tom Leighton also acknowledged he didn’t adequately track the gas he used to fill his personal vehicle, which he also uses for municipal business in lieu of taking a city car.

The mayor’s fuel use has proven particularly irksome to the taxpayers’ association, which plastered a photo of Leighton in a white T-shirt fueling up his SUV on a main thoroughfare billboard.

Drew McLaughlin, municipal affairs manager for Wilkes-Barre, said the city has acknowledged its shoddy record-keeping policies and installed an electronic system to track gas and diesel usage.

The city also has cooperated with the district attorney’s investigation, McLaughlin said, noting that a spate of violent crimes in the area could have slowed Salavantis’ inquiry.

“Obviously, we would like to see the matter come to a quick end,” he said.

That hasn’t happened. And so far, only taxpayers have paid a price.

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue fined the city almost $26,000 after finding 67,000 gallons of fuel were not properly documented during a two-year time period. The city has maintained that most of the fuel was used for tax-exempt public purposes.

Raup still wants action. In her letter, she broached the possibility that nepotism and a conflict of interest “seems to have hindered justice in the D.A.’s Office,” considering Salavantis’ top detective is the brother of the Wilkes-Barre police chief.

“She should have never taken that case,” Raup said.

The police chief didn’t use the pumps, McLaughlin said.

The Times-Leader reported last week that Salavantis wrote a letter to the city in January saying she was still investigating.

“Nonetheless, as you must also be aware, the investigation has been greatly prolonged by the city’s complete lack of policies, procedures, documentation, checks and balances, accounting and accountability regarding the use of gas by city employees and officials,” she wrote, according to the newspaper.

The plodding investigation poses the potential to become a political albatross for Salavantis, who knocked off incumbent District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll despite having no prosecutorial experience. She won the contest after characterizing her opponent as an enabler of the kids-for-cash judicial scandal that rocked Luzerne County and left two former judges in prison.

“I just hope to restore integrity and respect back to Luzerne County,” Salavantis told The Citizens’ Voice the night she won election. “I hate that Luzerne County has been seen as one of the worst areas of the country, one of the most corrupt. I want to change that.”

Now, critics say, Salavantis’ time-consuming probe is evidence much is still the same in the corruption-plagued northeastern Pennsylvania.

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Andrew Staub is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in central Pennsylvania. Contact him at astaub@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @AndrewStaub.

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