Sunday, July 13, 2014

Panel: Deputy coroner broke ethics code ban

February 19. 2013 10:33PM
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The Luzerne County ethics commission concluded a deputy coroner should be admonished for violating an ethics code ban applying to deputies affiliated with funeral homes. The ruling stemmed from a complaint filed by Wilkes-Barre resident Belinda Coulibaly against deputy coroner Daniel Hughes.

Coulibaly, whose father unexpectedly died of natural causes in August, said Hughes violated a ban prohibiting coroners from soliciting, discussing or accepting business for a funeral home with which they are associated while they're engaged in county business. County Council added the prohibition in response to a long-running complaint that the county's reliance on funeral directors as deputy coroners creates the potential for them to acquire private clients through county work.

Coulibaly said Hughes told her he could help her get her father's body back to the Ivory Coast in West Africa, gave her his cellphone number and later emailed an estimate for transport through his private funeral home business. Hughes has denied violating the ban. The commission also recommended the coroner's office develop a set of practices and guidelines for deputies who own or work in funeral homes.

Admonishment requires a letter to the accused indicating he has been found in violation of the code. County Controller Walter Griffith, a commission member, voted for admonishment but said he believed the punishment should be much more severe.

The commission also has the ability to impose censure, which is a letter expressing strong disapproval of the respondent's actions. Suspension, dismissal and fines also may be recommended by the commission.

Commission members Margaret Hogan and Vito A. Forlenza supported the admonishment. Commission member Robert Lawton, the county manager, abstained from voting. The final member, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, was out of the area.

The commission also voted on a complaint against Lawton for missing the Oct. 15 home rule charter deadline to submit the proposed 2013 budget.

Hogan and Forlenza concluded the missed deadline was not a violation of the ethics code. They said Lawton's desire to follow ethics code requirements to serve in the public interest and accomplish necessary tasks in efficient and economical ways made it impossible for him to meet the Oct. 15 deadline. They advised the manager to publicly seek council approval for an extension if the deadline will be missed in the future.

Griffith voted against their ruling, saying he does not believe the commission has the ability or the duty or the right to allow anyone to violate the charter in any way.

Hazleton resident Kathy Dobash was among several citizens who criticized the commission Monday. She predicted fewer complaints will be filed because of the commission's light punishment.

Brian Shiner, Kingston, and Ed Chesnovitch, Jackson Township, questioned why Lawton keeps abstaining from rulings on complaints that are not against him. They said the charter put him on the board to make decisions.

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