Northumberland County Coroner Kelley cleared in funeral bill dispute
SUNBURY - Northumberland County Coroner James Kelley has been cleared of any wrongdoing for accepting payment from Children and Youth Services for funeral services provided to a 16-year-old male who was in foster care when he died in January.
In a press release issued Thursday afternoon, Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini, who referred the investigation involving Kelley to the state Attorney General's Office because of his long standing relationship with the coroner, stated, "I find myself in the awkward position of announcing that a criminal investigation has cleared Coroner James Kelley of any wrongdoing in his receipt of payment from Children and Youth Services for funeral services."
The district attorney said normally such an investigation would be conducted privately so the party's reputation would not be damaged in the vent allegations were determined to be unfounded.
"I'm pleased with the ruling by the Attorney General's Office," Kelley said when reached at home Thursday night. "I said from the very beginning that I never felt I did anything wrong. I am especially happy for my family that they no longer have to worry about this issue."
Kelley, who has served as coroner since January 2002 and has worked in the coroner's office since 1990, declined comment when asked if he would seek legal action against the commissioners.
Upon hearing from the media Thursday afternoon that Kelley was cleared of any wrongdoing, Commissioner Stephen Bridy stated, "It doesn't surprise me. If that's what they found, I really don't know what else to say because I haven't received any notification from Mr. Rosini. You would think Mr. Rosini would have sent a release to the commissioners as well. I still believe the county code is pretty straightforward when it comes to the issue and I wouldn't have made it public unless I was certain the code was violated."
"I'm not surprised at all with the finding," commented Commissioner Richard Shoch. "I believe there was too big of rush to bring the issue to the media's attention when there was little information to go on. These types of ethics issues are usually discussed in private. I wish Mr. Kelley the best."
Commissioner Vinny Clausi reserved comment.
Rosini said it is not uncommon to have a criminal investigation that results in no charges being filed, but believes it was an ethical violation to make the issue public.
The district attorney said, "The Ethics Act, which it was alleged the coroner had violated, contains provisions that prohibit the public disclosure of investigations. However, those provisions were held to violate free speech rights. There are provisions for civil damages for disclosure of investigations that remain in effect."
He said the commissioners' office referred the matter to him for investigation.
During an April 30 impromptu news conference called by Bridy, the commissioner accused Kelley of a possible conflict of interest for submitting a bill to the county for funeral expenses for the teen.
According to the county code, no public official or public employee or his or her spouse or child, or any business in which the person or his or her spouse or child is associated, shall enter into any contract valued at $500 or more with the governmental body with which the public official or public employee is associated.
At the news conference, Bridy said Kelley could be guilty of committing a misdemeanor under the county code that would require him to pay a fine of not more than $1,000 and/or face imprisonment for not more than one year.
Kelley, who requested the payment on behalf of James Kelley Funeral Home, Coal Township, of which he is director, maintained he did nothing wrong and was instructed by Children and Youth Services Director Jennifer Willard to submit the $5,755.50 bill. Submitted Jan. 30 and paid by the county Feb. 8, it included funeral services and cremation.
While Northumberland County agencies worked with the teen, his death actually occurred in Union County, Kelley previously said.
"In no way was I performing my duties as county coroner in this case. It had nothing to do with the coroner's office," he said.
Kelley said the teen's family members asked him to handle the arrangements because his funeral home had done so for other members of that family. The mother of the teen lives in the Shamokin area, he said.
"Children and Youth told me to submit a bill, so I did," Kelley said. "If the county didn't want to pay it, they shouldn't have paid it. But they didn't need to create a big issue about it after the fact."
Bridy called the news conference after a salary board meeting to report that the county planned to file a complaint with the state ethics commission about the bill because it may constitute a conflict of interest since Kelley serves as county coroner.
Kelley was not made aware of the conference until after it happened.