Detectives visit TL in WB fuel probe

Jerry Lynott jlynott@timesleader.com

January 8, 2014

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County detectives Wednesday visited The Times Leader as part of the ongoing probe into fuel missing from Wilkes-Barre storage tanks in response to an editorial about the investigation.

Detective Larry Fabian, accompanied by Detective Daniel Yursha, inquired whether the newspaper had information that would help in the investigation, particularly about prior reports of people admitting they had taken fuel by pumping it into containers and then putting it into their personal vehicles.

The editorial, published Tuesday, questioned why it is taking so long to conclude the probe that began in July 2012 after the newspaper reported thousands of gallons of fuel were missing from the tanks at the Department of Public Works yard on North Pennsylvania Avenue over a seven-month period.

George Spohr, the paper’s executive editor, said that he directed the detectives to the The Times Leader’s website, where the stories are publicly available.

“Two investigators made an unannounced visit to The Times Leader where they requested documents and information, all of which has previously appeared in our news articles,” Spohr said. “We’re not in possession of any documents or notes.”

District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said detectives followed up on the editorial. If the paper has something, “then we need it,” she said.

Detectives also visited the state Department of Environmental Protection in Wilkes-Barre on Monday after the newspaper informed the district attorney that no one from her office sought information from DEP that first investigated the report of missing fuel in July 2012.

The department determined there was no leakage from the tanks, but the fuel could not be accounted for due to poor record keeping.

The detectives left with copies of the DEP file, said Colleen Connolly, a DEP spokeswoman.

In the past, Salavantis had said the probe has been delayed by the workload on her office, including violent crimes and homicides that take precedence. The receipt of new information and leads in the fuel probe has also prolonged it.

“We follow all the leads and all the information that may be relevant to the investigation,” Salavantis said.

In addition to the DEP, the state Department of Revenue investigated and determined that the city could not account for approximately 67,000 gallons of fuel pumped between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2012.

The Department of Revenue ordered the city to pay about $26,000 in tax, penalties and interest on the gasoline and diesel fuel purchased tax free.

The city paid the assessment in 2012 but appealed, saying it was excessive and that most of the fuel was used for municipal purposes. Last June the department denied the appeal.

Mayor Tom Leighton had said he pumped city fuel into his personal vehicle that was used for city business. A photograph of him filling up an SUV at the city pumps was used by the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association on a billboard this past summer to prod the district attorney about the concluding the investigation.