The mysterious disappearance in Wilkes-Barre of tens of thousands of gallons of fuel from the city’s Public Works Department merited a serious and speedy criminal investigation, not the foot-dragging folly that continues to unfold.
Eighteen months after the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office supposedly started a careful review of the matter, it has nothing to publicly show — except egg on its face. Its inability or unwillingness to file charges in a timely fashion, or to explain why they are unwarranted, erodes public confidence. It also suggests the case might better have been handled by another agency.
The Times Leader first reported on discrepancies at the fuel pumps on July 1, 2012.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sprang into action, determining the problem wasn’t a leak in the underground tanks but rather troubles of the human variety, most likely shoddy record keeping. By mid-July 2012, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis assigned two detectives to the case.
Since then, the state Department of Revenue did its own review, faulting the city for its failure to properly account for about 67,000 gallons of fuel dispensed between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2012. It required the city to pay $23,000 in tax, for fuel initially purchased tax-free, plus a modest penalty of less than $2,500 and about $600 in interest. The city subsequently appealed that decision and lost.
Meanwhile, Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton admitted he had gassed up his personal vehicle at the tanks without filling out fuel logs, yet indicated his driving was for city business. Separately, it was widely reported that certain employees admitted they had stolen fuel, some by putting it in portable containers, then later transferring it to their personal vehicles.
The DA initially estimated her office’s investigation would wrap up in January 2013. It did not.
In April 2013, Salavantis said she expected within a few weeks to announce whether criminal charges would be filed, noting the case was time-consuming. “We had boxes and boxes of documents we had to go through,” she said. “We’d do one interview, and find five more people we’d want to follow up with.”
No announcement was immediately forthcoming.
In December, she conceded the investigation would continue into 2014, pinning the problem partly on an inability to schedule interviews during the holidays. Apparently, justice is not only blind but also partial to some Christmas downtime.
Embarrassingly, Salavantis last week supplied this shocker: The investigation will last even longer than it otherwise would have because, until informed by a reporter with The Times Leader, her office was unaware that the state DEP’s staffers already had looked into the disappearing fuel fiasco, so had not asked for or reviewed their records.
“We had no idea that DEP was involved,” Salavantis said. “We are definitely following up on that.”
Is the public to believe the topic of DEP’s involvement never arose during the course of all those pre-holiday interviews or, say, during a cursory look at any newspaper account of the fuel caper during the past year and a half?
Seemingly, Salavantis’ most recent statement indicates the DA’s Office either isn’t approaching this case sincerely or it needs to renew its newspaper subscription.
Skeptics understandably will say politics is at play; from the get-go, some people asked that the state Attorney General’s Office handle this probe. Their concern: Mike Dessoye, chief of Luzerne County detectives, is the brother of Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Gerry Dessoye, who was appointed by Mayor Tom Leighton.
Salavantis assured there would be no conflict. Her office needed to do more on its own, she said, rather than referring cases to outside agencies.
Perhaps the district attorney will one day provide a plausible explanation for why this investigation dragged on. Until then, people’s trust is running on empty.