Friday, February 24, 2012

The LuLac Edition #1959, February 24th, 2012

Dr. Greg House and his catch phrase, "everybody lies". But does "everybody oversight?"

Attorney Angela Stevens.

The late Henry Manarski, WWII vet and former area school board director. (Times Leader photo).


In a report that is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the Times Leader’s Terrie Morgan Besecker reported today that a Kingston Attorney, Angela Stevens has been double billing the County for Legal Services associated with Children and Youth. Essentially Stevens double billed the County busting a budgeted fund with an allotment of $125,000 and actually billing the county significantly more than that. Stevens herself made $144,000 in salary because of this.
The Times Leader brought the information to the proper authorities at the Courthouse who were “shocked and dismayed” when told about the discrepancies. In an interview Tuesday with The Times Leader and President Judge Thomas Burke, Polachek Gartley said she was distressed to learn of the newspaper’s findings. She said she would not have approved Stevens’ bills had she known about the irregularities.
I’ll bet they were distressed. This is big money and to have a reporter tell you they were more diligent in reviewing bills than you were has make one think of Mike Wallace knocking at the door. The President Judge, Tom Burke did some serious back pedaling when he explained the reason why this may have happened. “There was a protocol in place. The court relied primarily on the attorney verification attached to the fee petitions. In hindsight, it’s realized perhaps there could be a system with better controls to review submissions,” Burke told the Times Leader. The Attorney versification Burke referred to was the fact that each attorney signed the billing document as being truthful and reasonable under the penalty of perjury or charges. Burke also said this about Judge Gartley, “You had an extraordinarily busy judge playing an administrative role in this area, coupled with a docket that was relentless in both family court and criminal court area,” Burke said. “Over the past two years, no judge in the history of this county has ever worked harder or taken on more responsibility.” Okay, I understand that. No one has brought more enthusiasm and hard work to the bench than Tina Gartlety but the question then has to be asked of Judge Burke. Why would you allow no one else to at least give a cursory look at these billings? There are more than 300 Court employees, all sworn to confidentiality. Could he not found a handful that could have looked at these things and maybe realized that it was not humanly possible for someone to charge for 46 hours in a 24 hour day? We are told constantly how more staff is needed in the courts and yet this couldn’t be delegated! So if you make the argument that these staff people were too busy or may have needed special training in this billing oversight situation, weren’t there a few senior Judges familiar with Children and Youth (Muroski, Augello, Toole, Mundy) who were getting paid that might have taken a peek?
The lack of oversight trail was outlined in the Times Leader story. All invoices submitted by the attorneys were first presented for approval to Polachek Gartley, who headed the county’s family court division in 2011.
Each attorney was required to sign a document, known as a verification, under penalty of law attesting to the accuracy and reasonableness of their charges. They could be subject to charges of perjury if the information was not correct.
Once the court order was signed, the order and invoices went to Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr., who had agreed to hold the funds in his budget, even though no public defenders represented the parents.
Flora also said he did not review the invoices because the money to pay the attorneys, while it was held in his account, was not his department’s money. He was simply the conduit through which the funds, which came from the county’s general fund, were disbursed.
“All they were doing was utilizing a line item in my budget simply as a pass through so the invoices could get paid,” Flora said. “The court reviews the invoices for the purpose of determining the reasonableness of the bill.”
Flora would sign a payment authorization form that, along with the court order and invoices, next went to Controller Walter Griffith, who issued the checks.
In this case, Griffith said he did not review the invoices because he believed that had already been done by the courts. Regardless, he was not in the position to determine the reasonableness of the charges.
“When the bills come over, I don’t know what an attorney is doing in court. My position is to make sure there is a payment authorization and court order,” Griffith said. “If there is an affidavit from two people, one who is a judge and one who is an attorney who did the work, who am I to question it?” So there is the trail of “not my job” that allowed this billing to go on. Burke then said he’d want the Interim County Manager to do an investigation on this. Tom Pribula was livid a month ago about the Court’s initial non cooperation about help with the budget, this sent him over the edge. He told the Times Leader, To trust attorneys to say their bills are 100 percent accurate is absurd. I don’t care if they are officers of the court,” Pribula said. “Someone from the court needed to attest to the accuracy of the bills.” Pribula and Griffith have been roundly criticized for not being administrators but just “bean counters”. But in reality, this is all about common sense.
1. You can’t take anyone except people in your immediate family at their word.
2. Given the recent scandals, especially involving Children, you don’t verify bills from Children and Youth to make sure anything resembling a “Cash For Kids” scandal happens? I’m stunned that these people never realized the Feds are still here!
3. Taking Judge Burke at his word, let’s assume that there was a tremendous screw up here given the size and scope of the County government. Government misplaces and misspends money all the time. But a private law firm or individual has to know when they are getting overpaid. If they were truly honest and ethical, would they not come forward?
Attorney Stevens of the firm Pyrah and Stevens formed from the old Cordoni law firm (that also got caught up in the uninsured motorist scam in the county) did a little back pedaling herself saying that the billings were oversights. Charging $5 for a dollar coke is an oversight. These totals are in the hundreds of thousands, that’s one big oversight. Plus, in this word of Iphones, Ipads, faxes, and e mail, does an Attorney have to hand carry all these documents to the Courthouse herself? I can see Court appearances but really?
A few conclusions here:
1. When the people of Luzerne County got a new Judiciary, we expected that some of this craziness would stop. Obviously it did not. The faces might have changed but not the way business is conducted.
2. A county official once told me this was “a lawyers town”. He meant that if you knew the right people, made the right connections, even if you were the right gender, you could make a lot of money. It wasn’t about qualifications or the old nose to the grindstone either. All you had to do was have the business be steered your way. This is still “a lawyers town” that in this case, have benefited from people with family problems.
3. There will be those who will put this in front of the Judicial Conduct Board but their inaction against former Judges Conahan and Ciavarella proved they are a joke. During the midst of the Judicial scandal, there was talk that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should come in sand take over the County Judiciary lock stock and barrel. The lawyers have billing oversights, the Judiciary is either overworked or overwhelmed, the Court system is overloaded with people who owe their jobs to the club of the law, not its letter and Judge Burke has proven he is a reactive President Judge rather than a proactive one. I do not know if this was an oversight, a lie, a mistake, a mess up, ignorance or just people so loaded with work they made mistakes. I'm hoping for the best here. But someone bigger than the current President Judge needs to give us the answer.
Memo to the State Supreme Court: It’s time, we’re more than ready.


Henry Manarski of Plains passed away the other night. Manarski was a School Director in Plains and in the Wilkes Barre Area School District for more than twenty years. He was well known, well respected and well liked in political circles throughout Luzerne County. A WWII veteran, he was one of many of that greatest generation passing on. He was 86.


At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The LuLac Edition #1959, February 24th, 2012":

Why isn't this going to that new ethics commission you reported on Yonk? Couple of weeks ago you ran a story about it when the Council appointed Bruce Simpson to be the citizen Commissioner. Seems to me this is who should investigate.....

At 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are being way too kind to the people involved. According to the Leader, 17 other lawyers got money from C&Y. Isn't it odd that only one of the law firms or lawyers involved had "oversight" problems? Pribula and Griffith, as well as Steve Urban Senior have been right on point about the reckless finances of the gods and goddesses in black on the third floor.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems Gartley should have had a few more years under her belt before being elected Judge. Now maybe we'll see what our "Child DA" does about it.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is crazy about this situation is that it comes on the heels of the biggest judge scandal in the state. 3 judges are in jail. You would think that if you are an attorney or a udge or a president judge, you'd make damn sure that all the "i s" were dotted. My 18 year old asked me, "are they just stupid or are they evil"? A little bit of both if you ask me.

At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a very good point about the number of people in the Courts. What do they do? I've been on jury duty a few times and saw a lot of walking around. Surely someone as smart as a Judge could have handed this off to someone else and say, "take a look and see if this looks good to you". The more eyes the better. But I guess that would call for still more employees.

At 3:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it when a problem happens at the Courthouse, it was the failure of the protocol instead of the people in charge! Just wondering.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This thing doesn't pass the smell test. Wonder if the new County Manager is going to let the dogs loose, let them do their business and head back to California with the wife! Here's Pribula on March 1st, "Hello, hello, anybody here? Bob? Bob?"

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw you on Topic A a few weeks ago. Your statement about doing an employment audit was spot on but I think every office should be audited too. I also think Walter Griffith is passing the buck big time too. What is his progress on all those outstanding audits that were a campaign issue in '09? Huh?

At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you take a look at the Times Leader chart, it seems like its no accident that the women are making more than the men. Another name I see on that list is Joe Terranna. I think Joe Terranna would have been a hell of a Judge and I am so sorry he didn't run again in '11. He is a good guy. But maybe that's the problem.

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The LuLac Edition #1959, February 24th, 2012":

I think the billing may actually have been an oversight. But when they were approved, by THREE layers of county government, including the THE WATCHDOG, county controller; it may have been interpreted by the attorney as "tacit approval." In other words, those who approve/disapprove payment reviewed the billings and did not find fault, so the attorney may have been led to believe that her billing was accurate.
Or simply, since the billing was approved and paid, she may have not realized the oversight. If you submit something that has multiple levels of approval, and it continues to be approved, why would you think you have done something wrong?
As far as the hours/day; it is not uncommon for those that bill out hourly work to add up the increments and do the billing on one day per cycle. Back in the days when the garment industry was dominant, home sewers were paid a lump sum for the work they performed. It didn't matter if the piece work was done in an hour, day or week. The work was totaled when it was delivered.
As long as she can provide documentation for the actual hours worked, there should be no issue. Does it matter if she did 15 minutes on the 3rd, the 23rd and then 30 minutes on the 30th, whether she billed on each day or one?
Additionally, it is also very common to factor all components of a work into a bill; ie, the prep,travel, postage,copying, etc... prior to the actual delivery of the bill. Her reasoning that it wasn't adjusted is very valid. It happens in all sorts of work, for the wage slaves out there who have never owned a business; think of going to a restaurant; the bread, accompanying sides, etc.. are all included in your bill ahead of time. If you don't eat them, or tell them not to bring them out, you are still charged. Just because she did the service at one time, doesn't mean that she may have not had the charges factored in prior to the actual delivery; and again, since the bills were approved, no wrong doing was indicated; and one could conclude, with so many layers of oversight, via tacit approval, that what was being done was legal.
Unfortunately, in the climate, you will all judge her based on the accusations, prior to all facts being in. (edited)

At 2:08 PM, Blogger David Yonki said...

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The LuLac Edition #1959, February 24th, 2012"
YOUR COMMENTS WERE A VERY SOLID EXPLANATION OF ATTORNEY STEVENS' SIDE OF THE STORY. IF I HAD THAT AT MY DISPOSAL, I WOULD HAVE INCLUDED IT IN THE ARTICLE. AS FOR THIS LINE:Unfortunately, in the climate, you will all judge her based on the accusations, prior to all facts being in.
I do not know if this was an oversight, a lie, a mistake, a mess up, ignorance or just people so loaded with work they made mistakes. I'm hoping for the best here.

At 10:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't really see the problem. If she is billing for the delivery of the case file, what does it matter if she is already going to the courthouse or not? When UPS delivers several packages to my office, I do not receive a discount for delivery from the UPS facility to my office. If the driver is in my office building anyway, I don't receive a discount. She was able to bill for the delivery; it was up to those at the courthouse to approve or disapprove the fees.


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