Luzerne County Council won’t pursue further prison death investigation

By Jennifer Learn-Andes [email protected]

			
				                                The Luzerne County Prison is seen on Water Street, Wilkes Barre.
                                 Times Leader file photo

The Luzerne County Prison is seen on Water Street, Wilkes Barre.

Times Leader file photo

<p>Mackey </p>

Mackey

Luzerne County Council won’t seek or launch further review of county prison inmate Shaheen Mackey’s June 2018 death, it decided in separate actions during Tuesday’s virtual meeting.

A council majority rejected Councilman Walter Griffith’s suggestion to create a county prison investigation committee to review and evaluate the conduct, policies, standard operating procedures and protocols at the facility and examine the circumstances of Mackey’s death.

Council would have allocated up to $75,000 in funds as required by the committee to facilitate the committee’s investigation, Griffith’s resolution said. The county controller, three council members and three council-appointed residents would have served on the committee.

A second proposal from county Manager C. David Pedri to hire an outside law firm to perform a review did not even make it to a vote, with no council members making the motion.

Pedri proposed hiring Attorney Michael Reed and the Philadelphia-based law firm of Troutman Pepper for $75,000 to complete an outside review of all interactions with Mackey while he was at the county prison and analysis of relevant current and past standard operating procedures and protocols.

Also failing to secure a majority vote was Griffith’s idea to pass a resolution asking county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis to request a state Attorney General’s Office investigation into Mackey’s death.

Salavantis has said she has no problem discussing the matter with the state Attorney General if he wants to review her findings, but she has no reason to seek an investigation because her office already completed a thorough one that found no criminal acts or wrongdoing by any correctional officers involved.

DA resolution

Only four of the 11 council members supported this resolution — Griffith, Linda McClosky Houck, Sheila Saidman and Stephen J. Urban.

Councilman Harry Haas said the district attorney’s office completed an investigation, and he asserted the resolution was “for political reasons” amid pressure to take some action.

Council members Chris Perry and Robert Schnee said they agreed with Haas.

Schnee said the district attorney was elected to handle criminal investigations. Council handles legislative matters and is “not the criminal branch,” he said.

But Saidman said she believes a letter signed by council would be appropriate in this situation.

Griffith said he is not implying the district attorney’s investigation was flawed but asserted an outside state investigation is needed to “put to rest” any public perception that there’s an appearance of impropriety.

Committee proposal

Only three council members supported Griffith’s proposal to create a committee — Griffith, McClosky Houck and Urban.

Haas said more thought should be put into the formation of a committee — its scope, roles and duration — to “do it right.” He had served on a 911 inquiry committee consisting only of council members in 2015 that extensively reviewed data and made recommendations on emergency response.

“Let’s not just do something to make it look like we are doing something,” Haas said.

Saidman said the county prison received a “superb” review from the state in last year’s inspection, but the idea of further review came up due to a public outcry prompted by a video released by Mackey’s family showing the period he became unresponsive while in a restraint chair at the prison.

Other business

In other business Tuesday, a council majority tabled a request from KBJ Real Estate Investment LLC for the county to serve as the host government entity to obtain $1 million in state funding it received toward the purchase and remodeling of the former Berkshire Hathaway GUARD property on South River Street in Wilkes-Barre.

The risk to the county is negligible because several steps already have been taken to ensure expenditures meet eligibility requirements and approval, KBJ’s consultant told council. KBJ owner Kris Jones has told council the grant and match total $2 million, and he has more than met that with the $1.8 million purchase and more than $300,000 in renovations.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.