WILKES-BARRE — The U.S. Attorney’s Office now is investigating theft allegations against Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Yuknavich, resulting in one of two Luzerne County cases against him being delayed.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and defense attorney Barry Dyller confirmed the investigation in conversations with The Times Leader on Tuesday afternoon. Yuknavich received a letter from federal officials, informing him of the probe late last month, Salavantis and Dyller said.
A spokeswoman said the U.S. Attorney’s Office has no comment on the matter.
This latest development raises new questions about the fate of two longstanding county cases against Yuknavich, 50, who is accused of stealing more than $60,000 from the fire department and making personal purchases with a company credit card.
Yuknavich was facing a May 12 trial date on charges that he stole more than $48,000 from the department between 2008 and 2011. News of the federal investigation came to light in a motion filed Tuesday by Salavantis and Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick, who asked for that case to be continued.
“The commonwealth has been notified by the Office of the U.S. Attorney of a concurrent federal investigation of the instant subject matter,” Salavantis and Melnick wrote, adding that they wished to guard against “any adverse impact on the federal prosecution and avoid duplicate prosecutions” in the case.
County Judge Michael T. Vough granted a continuance until July 21.
Salavantis said it is too soon to say what the impact could be on the county charges, but added her office has been working with federal officials.
The two Luzerne County cases outstanding against Yuknavich are:
• In December 2011, state police charged Yuknavich with taking $11,865 through multiple withdrawals from the fire department’s accounts, and with making $3,706 in personal purchases with the fire department’s Sam’s Club credit card.
A jury was selected last year. But the case, before county Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr., was delayed while prosecutors appealed several issues, notably Sklarosky’s ruling which would prevent 15 bounced checks from being used as evidence against Yuknavich.
In an opinion issued last month, state Superior Court agreed that prosecutors are prohibited from using the bounced checks against Yuknavich because they would “confuse and mislead the jury.” No new trial date has been set.
• Last August, state police filed new charges after learning that a state auditor getting ready for the first trial allegedly uncovered additional missing funds in the case.
Prosecutors said that on several dates between 2008 and 2012, Yuknavich took fire department checks to be deposited at the Wilkes-Barre City Employee’s Federal Credit Union, where the fire department had an account. But he often deposited only part of the checks, taking some or all of the money in cash, investigators say, and diverting $48,712 to himself over that period.
That is the case which was postponed on Tuesday.
Neither Dyller nor Salavantis could say for certain whether the federal investigation was specifically concerned with one or both county cases, only that alleged thefts are the focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Right now, all I know is that it’s a federal investigation, based on the same set of facts,” Dyller said.
Salavantis noted that federal officials have been investigating corruption across Luzerne County in recent years, and that whatever the focus, both cases against Yuknavich would fall into that category.
She added her office has been working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI on several cases, and such cooperation creates opportunities for more severe penalties than might be available at county level.
Dyller, meanwhile, reiterated his client’s innocence, and questioned why federal officials are involved.
“Unrelated to the fact that he didn’t steal any money, there’s no federal interest here. This is classic state law,” Dyller said.
He also took aim at the ongoing delays in bringing Yuknavich’s county cases to trial.
“It’s frustrating when a client is dragged through the mud and does not get his day in court,” Dyller said. “Two-and-a-half years and they can’t seem to pull the trigger.”