Saturday, July 26, 2014

Griffith facing charges

Luzerne County controller will be arraigned today in illegal wiretap case.

May 16. 2013 11:48PM

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The state Attorney General’s Office filed felony wiretapping charges Thursday against Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith, ending months of speculation about the status of accusations he recorded people without their knowledge or permission.

Griffith, 58, of Kingston Township, faces three counts of “intercept communications,” according to the state filing with the office of District Judge Martin Kane in Wilkes-Barre.

An arraignment is scheduled before Kane at 10 a.m. today. Griffith faces up to 21 years in prison because each wiretap violation carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

Griffith is on the Republican ballot in Tuesday’s primary election seeking the party’s nomination for a second four-year controller term. He is running against Republican Karen Ceppa-Hirko, a Wilkes-Barre tax accountant.

Griffith said he was informed of the pending charges and arraignment on Thursday. He has denied any wrongdoing but said he can’t comment on the charges. However, he pointed out his arraignment is five days before the election.

“I think timing is everything. I think the general public can tell why this is happening now. That should speak volumes,” Griffith said.

“In my zeal to make people accountable, some want to cost me the election.”

Charges had been expected because county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis publicly said in January that Griffith had illegally recorded conversations and supplied them to a grand jury investigating the Hotel Sterling’s nonprofit owner, CityVest.

CityVest board member Y. Judd Shoval filed a civil suit against Griffith in county court over the wiretaps and privacy invasion, Salavantis said.

Salavantis said Griffith gave the grand jury recordings of Shoval. She said she forwarded the investigation to the state Attorney General’s Office because it involves another elected county official.

Sources say Griffith also is accused of recording a closed-door county Retirement Board executive session and another conversation about county-related litigation.

The state’s filing did not include a narrative detailing the alleged illegal recordings that prompted the charges — information that will be released today.

The state wiretap law is strict in requiring all parties know a conversation is being recorded. An offender’s intent in making the recording is irrelevant, attorneys have said.

While the county is funding and handling Griffith’s defense in the civil suit, Griffith said he must pay for his criminal defense. He has hired local attorney Mark Bufalino.

Griffith said he made sacrifices getting involved in county government as a taxpayer and later an elected official but doesn’t regret any of his decisions.

He said he missed his daughter Samantha’s white coat ceremony for her pharmacy degree in 2008 because he and taxpayer Ed Chesnovitch volunteered, without attorney representation, to challenge the county’s court filing to borrow $17 million to cover debt. Their objections helped to convince a judge to lower the county’s borrowing to $5.3 million.

Griffith also said he shut down his auto repair business as promised to be a full-time controller. He is paid $36,562 annually as controller — the pay will increase to $64,999 for the controller elected in November.

“Everything I’ve done has been for the betterment of the county and the people of this county,” Griffith said. “Some people are trying to get rid of the independent watchdog who’s watching the store.”

Griffith’s critics have accused him of publicly attacking them without fully researching the facts or discussing his concerns with them in advance. He has been portrayed as a media hound, but he said he turns to the press when he believes county officials ignore his findings.

Times Leader staff writer Edward Lewis contributed to this report.

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