Sacavage rails against claims
SUNBURY - Northumberland County's president judge spoke publicly Tuesday for more than one hour railing against claims by Commissioner Rick Shoch that he had a hand in helping an old friend and ex-probation chief gain unemployment benefits.
President Judge Robert B. Sacavage said Shoch is playing the role of conspiracy theorist and using "subjective interpretation" in claiming Sacavage and others helped set up former adult probation chief John David Wondoloski to receive unemployment after he left his post this summer.
In that role, Sacavage said Shoch missed one fact among others: The president judge said Shoch had a date wrong related to Wondoloski's filing to the state.
He made another point: "If anybody thinks I engaged in a conspiracy with Mr. Clausi, they're out of their minds," Sacavage said, referring to a hot-and-cold relationship the two have had.
But the "conspiracy" language is all Sacavage's, Shoch said. He said he never called what happened a conspiracy directly. He did raise the question as to the validity of Wondoloski's unemployment claims and he didn't back down Tuesday.
Shoch attended about half of Sacavage's press conference inside the administration center. He had a deposition to attend in an unrelated county lawsuit. His fellow commissioners, Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy, were also scheduled to be deposed but after the press conference had ended, Shoch said.
Reached Tuesday afternoon, Shoch admitted his dates were mixed up when he initially raised the question of Wondoloski's eligibility for unemployment - something Sacavage chided him for. He had originally said the application was made in June, before his exit. It didn't, Shoch said, but the dates are "irrelevant."
"(Wondoloski) voluntarily quit from the position. I think (Sacavage is) trying to confuse the people to the issue. It was a voluntary quit. He left voluntarily. He was discussing the fact that he was going to leave last year," Shoch said.
That would make Wondoloski ineligible for the benefit, Shoch said, regardless of when he filed.
While Sacavage said he referred to Wondoloski's departure as a "retirement," it wasn't to the letter of the word. He didn't technically retire from the county. He says he isn't eligible to do so at this point anyway.
Wondoloski's position was eliminated as part of a restructuring plan that Sacavage says Shoch initially supported. Because of that, county paperwork says he was terminated. Three weeks after the elimination occurred, Wondoloski applied for unemployment, documents presented Tuesday show. The state ruled he was eligible.
"Along with the allegations of wrongdoing and corruption, it goes beyond that, if not the actual use of the language but the inference from the allegations that there was some kind of grand conspiracy here," Sacavage said. "I continue to categorically deny any such matters. I've engaged in no conspiracies. I have counseled nobody regarding filing of unemployment claims."
And a "retirement party" was misrepresented as such. It was a picnic at the end of a planned team-building exercise. Such exercises have been held for years. Picnics followed. They are off the clock and not at a public expense, Sacavage said. This one would have been held at Sacavage's cabin, planned by his daughter, Santina, a probation employee. It eventually was canceled over concerns about its nature.
Brian Updegrove, adult probation and parole supervisor, said during the press conference that he "poorly chose my words" in an email to fellow employees. "I misrepresented you in an email" because he didn't use the phrase "team-building."
"I assumed everyone in the department would know what it is because we do it every year," he said.
Shoch stood by his assertions that Wondoloski's exit was long planned. He previously pointed to the picnic as added evidence that it was considered a "retirement." Also, he says the ex-adult probation chief would casually count down the days to his departure in chit-chat with other county employees. It happened in meetings - prison board, meetings on prisoner transports - attended by the president judge, the county chief clerk and fellow commissioners themselves, Shoch claims.
There were other probation employees inquiring about the responsibilities of his job relative to the creation of a new position they were interested in applying for leading up to a vote on the restructuring that consolidated leadership in adult and juvenile probation, Shoch said.
Sacavage didn't deny that it was known Wondoloski was leaving after five years on the job. "We knew he was going to leave but an exact date was never spoken," he said.
When paperwork reached his desk in late June, Shoch says it was signed by Sacavage, Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy, Chief Clerk Gary Steffen, budget director Jeff McClintock and Picarelli. It was signed by them all, and it was signed before an actual vote on a restructuring plan. Shoch says this raises suspicion that a decision was already made and that the state's Sunshine Law on open government was violated.
Joe Picarelli, human resources director, said under questioning by Sacavage reminiscent of a courtroom examination that the president judge did not direct him to fill out paperwork for Wondoloski's termination. They didn't talk about it at all, Picarelli said. Sacavage had previously said it's not uncommon to fill out such forms in advance of a vote with a plan in place.
Sacavage was particularly rankled that Shoch went public with his claims before consulting the president judge himself. The commissioner frequently visits his chambers, Sacavage said. They speak on county business often as Shoch is the commissioner's liaison to the court.
"If these horrific matters that I'm being accused of occurred back in June or July, why are they aired for the first time in October at a public meeting here in the nighttime that was called for another purpose on the matter of salaries of elected officials?" Sacavage said referring to Shoch's comments at a meeting on the salaries of county row officers.
This can all be resolved with an independent investigation, Shoch said. The commissioner supports an investigation - by the FBI, by the state's attorney general - of both the commissioners office and the county court.
"Have them take a look under our hood. Look at the commissioners and the courts," Shoch said. "From that, whatever the result may be, we should be able to move forward."
As part of that investigation, Shoch said he would welcome a polygraph test related to the unemployment benefit issue.
Before Shoch left Tuesday's press conference, Sacavage made one statement directly to the commissioner.
"Mr. Shoch, I am pretty certain you are going to be hearing from Mr. Wondoloski in one form or another," he said.