Reviewing Shoch v. Clausi
Overshadowed by the past week's drama are myriad facts and dates revealed through Northumberland County Commissioner Richard Shoch's e-mail of Nov. 30 and Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi's response at a press conference on Wednesday.
Shoch had questioned Clausi's actions in regards to the deputy sheriff firings related to the porn-viewing scandal, as well as his timing and decisions related to the 911 center upgrade and the now-disputed Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) grant to battle homelessness.
Shoch demands that Clausi repay the county $57,390 in legal fees and place $1.5 million in escrow with the county to cover potential payouts to the claimants in the defamation lawsuits filed by fired deputy sheriffs Michael Boris and Joseph Jones and their former attorney, Stuck. He claims the lawsuits resulted from Clausi's statements made at a public meeting "that served no purpose other than to allow Mr. Clausi to see his name and picture in the newspaper." Shoch says Clausi, in sworn deposition testimony from April 7, 2011, "admitted that then-Commissioner Frank Sawicki warned him ahead of time not to discuss the issue in the public meeting as it would subject the county to a lawsuit."
Clausi, when he exposed the fact that pornography was viewed on sheriff's department computers, never mentioned names. That was both good and bad, in that it protected the county from libel, but also left all sheriff's department employees as suspects. Eventually, when Boris and Jones were fired for not obeying the department's computer usage policy, their names became more formally linked to the porn-viewing, yet still not definitively.
The courts have yet to determine the final outcome of the defamation lawsuit, but as Clausi points out, Boris and Jones lost their arbitration suit to get their jobs back and receive two years of back pay. Also, the county's October 2010 response to the lawsuit included 403 pages of computer logs that detail second-by-second computer usage under Jones' and Boris' log-ins on Nov. 19, 20 and 25, 2009, in the sheriff's department, and numerous occasions show the computers were logged into pornographic websites.
Clausi was initially careful in how he presented the porn-viewing information by not providing the names. The lawsuit response points that out: "Clausi made no indication at the public meeting that plaintiffs in particular viewed pornography."
Exposing the fact that computers in the county sheriff's department were being used to view pornography, a revelation that strikes at the heart of public trust, seems worthy of the legal risk and far beyond simply an opportunity for a politician to "get his name and picture in the newspaper." As Clausi presented in his statements Wednesday, "I exposed this incident because other public officials were trying to cover up this disgraceful behavior."
Shoch has also demanded Clausi place $5 million in escrow with the county in order to cover "likely additional costs" related to upgrades to its 911 communications system. He said Clausi "threw a temper tantrum" when Sawicki motioned to begin the process of obtaining requests for proposals from consultants to implement the federally mandated project in 2010.
Backed up by 911 coordinator Bill Brown at his press conference, Clausi laid out the timeline that started with Sawicki's plan to contract with Raytheon for the narrow-banding communications system at what we reported at the time as a "heavily discounted rate" of $5.5 million. County 911 officials made many inquiries to Raytheon about their system and those questions remain unanswered to this day, Clausi said Wednesday. He also said 911 officials didn't have confidence in the company.
Clausi also noted that on Sept. 28, 2010, he seconded a motion to seek bids for the upgrade project.
Coverage of that day's meeting shows that, as Shoch indicated last week, Clausi threw his pen and tablet onto the dais out of frustration with Sawicki. He also had tried to recall his vote in favor of the motion, but it was too late.
Clausi had objected because he claimed Sawicki had "snuck" the motion onto the agenda. He said the commissioners and other county officials had agreed after a three-hour meeting the week prior not to vote on it that day.
"We don't even know what kind of radio we will be buying yet," he was quoted at the time. "We have to take this one step at a time and make sure all the fire companies and police departments in the county are consulted to make sure all the municipalities can afford to pay for the changes."
Clausi pointed out several times that day he favored making the changes, but believed the county needed to seek state and federal funding before proceeding.
He argued on Wednesday, "Mr. Shoch's accusation that I ignored (the) 911 communications center upgrade is a lie."
Clausi listed seven bullet points in his defense of the county's handling of the DCED Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) grant, for which Shoch says he should put $200,000 in escrow to "cover the county's losses."
When Clausi left a voicemail with DCED's Beverly Hutzel, grant manager with DCED, on Feb. 2, with him during the call were three other county officials: Pat Mack, director of the planning department; Gregg Stavinski, director of adult services, and Gary Steffen, chief clerk.
More light on the situation is detailed in a timeline, provided by Mack on Nov. 9 at Clausi's request, that starts with the Oct. 20, 2009, date of approval of the program by Sawicki and Kurt Masser (Clausi voted against it) and the Nov. 5 acceptance of the contract by DCED. From there, Mack's timeline reads:
May 5, 2011: A desk audit was initiated by DCED to review financial data relative to HPRP expenses.
June 6, 2011: The desk audit appeared to end without any follow up advice or direction from DCED.
Sept. 16, 2011: Dodie Lovett's position was terminated as Case Worker I with the HPRP program.
Dec. 19, 2011: E-mail correspondence between Hutzel and Kathy Jeremiah relative to a submission for possible additional funding within the HPRP program.
Dec. 21, 2011: A request for additional funding was submitted to DCED, executed by then-chairman Sawicki.
Jan. 6: Hutzel approved the leverage (involving a county match for the grant) for the HPRP grant program via e-mail to Kathy Jeremiah.
Jan. 18: Another desk audit was in progress as initiated by DCED.
Jan. 25: Jeremiah held a call with Hutzel (during) which Hutzel requested a conference call with all parties of the county to be involved along with her boss, M.J. Smith, representing DCED.
Jan. 31: A conference call was held with Hutzel, Smith, Stavinski, Jeremiah and Mack where DCED referenced the "possible payback of funds" in the teleconference.
Feb. 2: Commissioner Clausi placed a call to DCED with Mack and Stavinski present, and received no response. Following that call, a meeting was held with Clausi, Stavinski, Mack and Steffen relative to the HPRP program. A call to a representative in the office of state Sen. John Gordner (R-27), Josh Funk, was placed to discuss frustrations with DCED and the HPRP program. Ultimately it was indicated to Mr. Funk that the program would be stopped, by Commissioner Clausi.
Feb. 6: A follow-up e-mail to the conference call with Gordner's office was sent by Mack ... stating the program should be stopped.
Feb. 10: Mack sent an e-mail to Ed Geiger (acting deputy secretary for community affairs and development) following a call on the previous day between him, Steffen and Clausi relative to how documentation was submitted to his offices and the protocols for communicating with them.
Feb. 15: Geiger responded to Mack's e-mail with additional comments in follow-up to the telephone call.
Feb. 16: A packet of information was sent to DCED about the desk audit per Geiger's request of Feb. 15.
Feb. 23: A follow-up e-mail was sent to Geiger by Mack, where Geiger is informed that Northumberland County is interested in closing out the program as quickly as possible.
April 18: A letter was sent to DCED executed by Shoch stating that the county wished to "close out the program and have DCED recapture the unspent funds."
(In Clausi's Feb. 2 voicemail, see transcript below, he notes the county was trying a year and a half earlier to get more information from DCED. Mack's timeline of June 6, 2011, seems to offer the same contention.)
It seems a problem with the DCED grant was common knowledge in county circles, considering the number of employees involved, and even a state senator was informed. What value would Clausi have in intentionally hiding the same information from Shoch and Bridy? And yet, we'd rather see Clausi make it a point to communicate such an important matter with his colleagues.
On a related note, considering the effort Bridy and Clausi went to in removing Montie Peters from the county planning commission over a DCED grant problem in his Point Township, Peters had every reason to make his "what goes around comes around" accusation on Tuesday.
Shoch provided copies of what he calls a "belligerent" message Clausi left on Feb. 2 with Hutzel. Following is the text of that message, and it can be heard at newsitem.com.
"Beverly, this is Vinny, Northumberland County commissioner. I'm here with Pat Mack and the chief clerk and we would like to speak to you. If you could call back to Northumberland County, 570-988-4564, and we've got to discuss about this program. You guys want so much information. We had people in the street where they didn't have no homes or nothing and so we had to help them out, and we were told we could help them out, and now you guys want all this detail. How about you call me back and I give you the $100,000 we have in the account and you can do whatever you want. I'm going to (one word inaudible) my end because, you guys, when we call you guys a year and a half ago, nobody can answer (our) questions. Now everybody wants their money back. We're not going to give you a penny! All right? So you call us back. Thank you."
Shoch said the message was "so belligerent" Clausi was no longer allowed by Hutzel's superiors to contact her directly, a point verified in an e-mail correspondence between Shoch and Hutzel provided by Shoch.
It's accurate to say the message is lacking in professionalism with the "penny" statement, and the fact that Clausi's voice raises beginning with "I'm going to" through "penny!" Otherwise, however, his voice is calm, he never screams and does not use profanity. After the penny sentence, he sounds courteous as he closes out the message.
After all this, we're left to draw the same conclusion as seems to be the case every time with Clausi: He's acting on what he believes is the best interests of the county, but finds himself in hot water because of his approach, and his inability to accept criticism from those who don't agree with him. It's a shame considering he has absolutely been a wise financial steward for the county.
Shoch had a right to challenge Clausi on this temper in office and the DCED issue, but Clausi has defended himself well in terms of the timeline of events.
Going forward, Clausi needs to stick to the promise that he'll contain his emotions, while Shoch should drop the ridiculous notion that Clausi is personally liable for the county's financial standing in regards to policy and decisions making that is part of the course of the commissioner's position. And his continued retaliation for past actions by Clausi is getting us nowhere.
Now that both have had their say over the past eight days, let it end. Clausi and Shoch, as well as Bridy, must heed the cries from the majority of county residents in asking that a spirit of cooperation, communication and honesty begin - immediately.