January 31, 2013
Luzerne County's embattled watchdog discovered three prison corrections officers who each bought $315 watches on the county's dime.
At least three county prison corrections officers used their county-funded uniform allowances to buy $315 Luminox Blackout watches, Controller Walther Griffith said. These watches are designed for military use, with one Internet supplier saying they are better, stronger and stealthier, just like you are.
Griffith discovered an invoice for one of these purchases earlier this month and alerted county Manager Robert Lawton, who immediately put a stop to watch purchases from the uniform allowance.
This is Griffith's first public exposure of a questionable spending practice since the county district attorney disclosed earlier this month the controller is under investigation for illegally recording multiple conversations, which Griffith denies.
Griffith, who has a reputation for publicly highlighting county concerns, has been at work in recent days but maintaining a low profile. He said he was discussing the issue because prison administrators referred a reporter to him for an explanation of what happened.
The purchases stemmed from a directive that all prison guards must start wearing watches effective Jan. 1.
Former Luzerne County prison warden Joseph Piazza, who retired Dec. 31, issued the directive in November but never mandated more expensive military-type watches, Griffith said.
Griffith said prison officials told him about the directive in November, saying it resulted from a guard who had cited the lack of a watch as the reason for omitting the time on a report.
The controller said he advised prison officials to contact the administration because watches are not identified as part of a corrections officer's uniform eligible for the uniform allowance in the prison collective bargaining agreement.
The county and union would have to negotiate a special collective bargaining memorandum of agreement saying watches are now part of the required guard uniform, which would make them eligible for the allowance, said Griffith and Lawton.
Also, the Internal Revenue Service requires employees to be taxed on uniform allowance purchases if the merchandise may be utilized outside work, which could apply to watches, Griffith said.
Prison officials never contacted the county manager or human resources office as Griffith advised, he said.
Lawton said he first learned of the matter from Griffith after the first invoice was submitted Jan. 14.
I appreciate the controller working with the administration to address this situation constructively, Lawton said. The thing department heads and senior managers need to remember is that human resources is there to assist them – not to hinder them.
Both businesses that provide merchandise for uniform allowance purchases – Starr Uniform Center in Scranton and Kranson Uniform in Wilkes-Barre Township – have been notified of the ban on watch purchases, Lawton said.
Griffith said a Starr Uniform representative told him three $315 watches were purchased by county guards. He did not immediately have a report from Kranson.
He said he found the purchase because he had a standing agreement with both companies to send him copies of all prison uniform allowance invoices.
The union contract requires the county to deposit $425 for each guard annually in one of the two stores – the prison guard picks one – for uniform allowance purchases.
The union contract specifies the following as part of the uniform: trousers, shirt, shoes, winter jacket and badge.
Employees receive two pairs of trousers, two shirts, a winter jacket, a pair of shoes, one set of handcuffs and a badge when they are hired, the contract says.
In addition to the $425 in-store clothing allowance, the contract requires $200 in a separate check to each employee for the clothing allowance.
Collective bargaining memorandums would likely require county council approval because union contracts must be passed by council under home rule.