Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis owes the community an explanation.
Salavantis confirmed earlier this month that her office is investigating a personnel matter, but would not confirm whether it involves Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick. At the time, she told us she wouldn’t comment beyond confirming the review. This week, she didn’t return our requests for more information.
Melnick is facing scrutiny for a relationship he’s admitted having with a Luzerne County prison inmate. Melnick maintains his visits with Terri Hettesheimer were strictly professional – that he was offering her legal advice. The visits raise a number of ethical questions: Did Melnick use his position as an attorney to gain repeated access to Hettesheimer? Were those interactions appropriate given their personal involvement?
Since those questions initially were raised, an even more serious issue has emerged: Is Melnick telling the truth?
In an interview with WILK radio host and investigative reporter Steve Corbett, Melnick said he visited Hettesheimer “several” times. Pressed further, Melnick said he “would have to look at my calendar” to confirm Corbett’s understanding that three visits were made. According to prison visitor logs reviewed by The Times Leader under a right-to-know request, however, Melnick visited Hettesheimer nine times in the span of 10 days.
And while talking to Corbett, Melnick accused The Times Leader of using “literary license” when we reported Melnick describing Hettesheimer as his “soul mate.” There’s only one problem: Melnick apparently had forgotten he used that phrase with Corbett himself. When Corbett called him on it, Melnick’s answer was downright depressing: “I do not recall that.”
Given the gravity of that – the possibility an assistant district attorney is being dishonest (at worst) or has a severely faulty recollection of events (at best) – Salavantis needs to reassure the public that her office is doing everything it can to get to the bottom of this issue.
Presumably, Melnick sought and received permission from Salavantis to call Corbett’s show and give an interview. If that’s the case, Salavantis abdicated her ability to remain silent on a topic that has serious ramifications. (If Melnick didn’t get permission from his boss, then you can add “exercises poor judgment” to the list of his possible sins.)
If the worst of these accusations are true – that Melnick abused his power, that he lied, that he acted unethically – that gives anyone who was prosecuted by Melnick justification to question his behavior at trial. Can you trust a prosecutor to behave responsibly in the courtroom when he’s seemingly behaving so unprofessionally outside of one? If Melnick can’t differentiate between “several” and “nine,” or if he can’t recall his own wording, is he fit to prosecute?
These are questions that Salavantis should answer.