Northumberland County coroner race heats up
SHAMOKIN - Republican opponent Leo J. Mirolli Jr. continues to claim incumbent Democratic Coroner James F. Kelley is helping fuel a neighborhood dispute, but Kelley said it's simply not true.
Mirolli points first to a Facebook post from April in which Kelley said a "friend's" campaign sign was stolen from a lawn along South First Street near Mirolli's home. Mirolli then cited a newspaper article about the feud in August in which Kelley said he didn't know the neighbors involved, only that he was asked for and provided signs.
"Which is it? Is she a friend or not?" Mirolli asked during a recent interview at The News-Item.
Kelley, also in a sit-down interview, said the woman is not a friend, and that his Facebook post was merely a generic reference to someone who had offered to help his campaign.
"It's been upsetting to me that he's saying that all these things that are happening to him are because of me," Kelley said. "I've had nothing to do with it."
He said the accusations go against Mirolli's claim that he's running a clean campaign.
Mirolli labeled other criticisms at Kelley that he says show he's a "part-time" coroner.
Mirolli collected public records and points to mileage reimbursements for deputy Barry J. Leisenring for 18 trips into the eastern end of the county in a 12-month period from June 2011 to May 2012 for a total of 684 miles. Like other county employees, Leisenring is reimbursed 55.5 cents per mile, $379.62 for these incidents.
Kelley said those 18 calls represent a fraction of the calls for which a coroner would respond in a year's time. Also, he said Leisenring and Chief Deputy James R. Gotlob rotate weekends as the on-call coroner while Kelley is on-call throughout the week and backup on weekends; the trips Mirolli noted may have been on weekends. Further, Kelley said, Leisenring may have responded along with Kelley; it's not unusual for the coroner and a deputy to respond, depending on the situation.
Mirolli also questioned reimbursements for five trips by Leisenring to Lehigh Valley Hospital for autopsies in a six-month period from November 2011 to May 2012. "If the coroner is full time," he asked, "why isn't he there?" He also asks why Leisenring uses his own vehicle and thereby receives reimbursement.
Kelley said the county does approximately 20 to 30 autopsies per year, and he can't make every one, so Leisenring does the transports. He says it's important that at least one, if not two, of the coroners remain in the county at all times.
Also, Leisenring uses his own livery service vehicle and is reimbursed because it's not practical to take the county coroner vehicle out of the area for such a long time, Kelley said. He disputed Mirolli's claim there is a second county-owned vehicle equipped for transporting bodies that Leisenring could use.
"Not that I'm aware of," Kelley said.
Kelley said the 2003 White Expedition owned by the county is equipped to handle everything his staff might encounter at a death scene. He said he wants to keep that vehicle in the county in case there is a call while a body is being transported for autopsy. When Gotlob or Leisenring respond to a scene alone, they use their own vehicles equipped to transport bodies.
"We have never, ever missed a call," Kelley said.
On the autopsies, he said staff at Lehigh Valley have commended Northumberland County for sending a coroner or deputy to participate, something many counties no longer do. It's important to be there, Kelley said, and it alleviates having to relay information after the fact.
On the subject of vehicles, Kelley said Mirolli has made comments about the coroner's vehicle "rusting away." But he's mistaken, he said, if he's referring to the silver 2003 Ford Expedition that sits mostly idle at Kelley's house. That is Kelley's own vehicle, one he used before the county purchased a coroner vehicle - a white 2003 Ford Expedition - in about 2003, after he had used his own vehicle to transport dead bodies for the first several years in office. He notes he has never asked for a new county vehicle.
Mirolli has also cast up the funeral billing controversy involving Kelley from 2012. Commissioner Stephen Bridy called an impromptu news conference at which he accused Kelley of a possible conflict of interest for submitting a bill to the county for funeral expenses for a teen who had died while in county foster care.
According to the County Code, no public official or employee can enter into any contract valued at $500 or more with the governmental body with which he's associated.
Mirolli became involved when he posted a copy of the $5,755 bill on his own website, but said at the time it had nothing to do with rumors he was running for coroner, and he downplayed suggestions he was friends with Bridy.
The bill had been submitted Jan. 30 and paid by the county Feb. 8 with no questions, until Bridy's press conference.
Mirolli said Kelley should have billed Union County to avoid any appearance of a possible conflict of interest.
"It's cut and dried. He violated the County Code," Mirolli said.
Kelley said the fact that the death occurred in Union County is, in fact, what allowed him to be involved without any conflict of interest. The Northumberland County coroner's office was not involved, and Kelley was involved only as a funeral director, he said.
The victim was in the foster program overseen by Northumberland County Children & Youth Services. Kelley said he was asked by the family, through Children and Youth, to carry out the funeral, which involved two viewings at opposite ends of the county, and Children and Youth said "send us the bill," Kelley said, so he did.
The state Attorney General's office cleared Kelley of any wrongdoing, but Mirolli says the agency "dropped the ball."
Kelley said he was blindsided by the claims he did something unethical. He said he could have avoided drawing attention to the issue by billing the family instead and billing the county. But, he said, he had nothing to hide.
He chalks it up to a "political attack" by Bridy. Why? "To help a friend," Kelley said.
Mirolli points to the foster child funeral billing as a reason he would not have a funeral director on his staff. In response, Kelley said he and his deputies go to great lengths to avoid such issues.
When dealing with a family that needs services in the Shamokin-Coal Township area, the coroner or his deputies read from an alphabetical list of local funeral homes, but never mention Kelley Funeral Home, Kelley said. The same applies for the Olley-Gotlob Funeral Home, where the chief deputy is a co-owner, when dealing with deaths in the Sunbury area, Kelley said.
"Even if it's someone I know and we've buried in their family before, I still ask the same question," he said, that being, "Is there a funeral home we can contact for you."
"I don't think there's a conflict; I really don't," Kelley said. "If they want to select me, it's not because I told them."
Kelley said the recent support he received from 13 funeral homes in the county in the midst of the salary cut debate should dispel any notion about conflicts of interest that Mirolli says are inherent in having a funeral director as coroner.
"One of the proudest days of my life is when I opened The New-Item and saw the letter to the editor of support from my fellow colleagues," he said. "I don't think every funeral home in the county would have got together and done something like that if I had ever done anything unethical."