Watchdog under fire

June 25th, 2015 8:48 am

First Posted: 5/17/2013

WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith is leaving his re-election to the fate of voters, hoping they will see past charges filed against him on Friday alleging he secretly recorded a private meeting and two telephone calls.

Griffith, 58, of Highland Avenue, Kingston Township, had no comment after he was arraigned by District Judge Martin Kane on three felony counts of intercept communications. He was released on $10,000 unsecured bail.

His lawyer, Mark Bufalino, said he found it “curious” the state Office of Attorney General filed the charges four days before the primary election. Griffith, a Republican, is seeking his party’s nomination to run for a second four-year term.

“The timing is obviously a little curious,” Bufalino said. “We’ll leave that up to the good judgment of the people of Luzerne County to make their own decisions with regards to that. What we are faced with here is responding to charges, not the calendar.”

Wilkes-Barre resident Sandy Fonzo, who gained national attention after she confronted former county Judge Mark Ciavarella outside the Scranton federal courthouse in February 2011, also questioned the timing of the charges. Fonzo arrived at district court to support Griffith only minutes after Griffith departed with Bufalino.

“I don’t believe anything is coincidence anymore, and for this to come up right before the election, I think it is really sad if he has to resign or is forced to resign,” she said. “It’s a great loss for Luzerne County taxpayers if we lose him.”

The complaint filed by the state Attorney General’s Office alleges Griffith recorded a telephone call with county officials and attorneys discussing the county’s pension fund on July 8, 2010, an executive session of the county’s retirement board on Aug. 2, 2010 and a telephone call with CityVest board member Y. Judd Shoval on March 29, 2011.

The participants involved in all three events were not aware they were being recorded, the complaint states.

“We’ll respond to the charges in the appropriate forum, which is in the courtroom and not in the news or the newspapers,” Bufalino said. “In this country, he is presumed innocent until proven guilty and he stands by that. Mr. Griffith’s good deeds in both his personal life and public office speak for themselves.”

Griffith basically surrendered evidence of the secret recordings when he provided documents in response to a federal grand jury subpoena that sought CityVest records to how it spent $6 million to preserve the former Hotel Sterling in Wilkes-Barre.

Complaint details

Griffith in late December 2011 or early January 2012 turned over documents, including a thumb drive, to an FBI agent serving the subpoena.

While reviewing the thumb drive, federal agents discovered an audio recording of a telephone conversation between Griffith and Shoval.

A search warrant that was sealed was served at the county controller’s office on July 31, 2012, by the FBI, county detectives and county sheriff’s department. About three weeks after the search warrant was served, the thumb drive was turned over to the county district attorney’s office.

District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis then requested the state Office of Attorney General assume an investigation due to a conflict of interest.

The complaint alleges Griffith audio-recorded multiple events with the majority of the recordings involving public meetings. Three recordings allegedly were made without the knowledge or consent of those involved in executive sessions and telephone calls, the complaint states.

The county’s retirement board held a telephone conference call on July 8, 2010, consisting of Griffith, county pension fund coordinator Ricky Hummer, retirement board solicitor Donald Karpowich and attorneys Joseph Devine and Wilbur Kipnes from a Philadelphia law firm. The complaint alleges Griffith recorded the conference call without the consent of all the participants.

Griffith allegedly recorded an executive session of the retirement board on Aug. 2, 2010, that involved former county commissioners Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban, county Director of Human Resources Andrew D. Check, Hummer and Karpowich. All participants told state agents that executive sessions are never recorded because they are considered private and usually contain discussions of personnel matters, the complaint states.

The complaint alleges Griffith recorded a March 29, 2011, telephone call with Shoval while Shoval was in Argentina on a business trip. Shoval claimed he did not give consent for Griffith to record the call, according to the complaint.

Griffith was interviewed by state agents on Feb. 28, 2011, when he claimed Hummer asked him to record the July 8, 2010, conference call.

Hummer said he never asked Griffith to record the conference call and was not aware Griffith had recorded the Aug. 2, 2010, executive session.

Fonzo: Confusing law

Fonzo questioned if Griffith was aware that it is illegal to record a phone call without the consent of the other party in Pennsylvania.

“I think it is confusing. We’re only one of 12 states that it is illegal to wire tap,” Fonzo said. “Did he know that? I don’t know. One in 12, I just don’t feel that everybody would know that. I didn’t know. Nobody is above the law and if he did know that, it is wrong. I really feel that he did what he should have been doing in protecting Luzerne County taxpayers.”

A preliminary hearing is scheduled on May 23 before Kane.