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).
"JUST AN OVERSIGHT???"
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.
EX WB POLITICO DIES
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.