Luzerne County presents its side on why past election director was fired

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | September 29th, 2016 7:44 pm

New details about former Luzerne County election director Leonard Piazza’s actions leading up to his April 2012 termination have been released in court documents.

In their defense against Piazza’s federal suit seeking reinstatement, the county and former county manager Robert Lawton on Thursday presented statements that three election workers made in depositions and sworn affidavits as evidence the firing was justified:

• Karla Cibello, who no longer works in the election office, said Piazza instructed her to “get everything you can find” on then-county controller Walter Griffith the day after March 2012 news articles about Griffith’s plans to complete a performance audit of the election office.

• The day the articles were published, employee Andrea Hill said she heard Piazza say of Griffith: “He wants to play games…I can play games too,” and “I will pick through his personal finances with a fine-toothed comb.”

• Employee Joanne Kelly said she heard Piazza come into the office and ask for Griffith’s file after Griffith’s audit plan announcement.

The county and Lawton, who resigned as manager the end of 2015, filed paperwork Thursday asking a federal judge to rule in their favor through summary judgment instead of proceeding to a trial.

They maintain Piazza was fired for exceeding the scope of his authority by conducting a “clearly retaliatory” review of Griffith’s campaign finance reports in response to Griffith’s plans to audit the election office.

Piazza’s action opened up the county to a potential claim from Griffith alleging Piazza’s targeting violated his civil rights, they said.

Griffith had obtained an opinion through the Pennsylvania Department of State that Piazza’s review of Griffith’s filing was an “abuse of his power,” the county and Lawton said, repeatedly stressing Griffith had clear authority to perform his audit as controller.

Lawton also was convinced, based on Piazza’s actions and responses during his due process hearing, that Piazza did not understand the “seriousness of his actions” and “would repeat those actions in the future,” the county filing said.

Attorney Kimberly Borland, Piazza’s attorney, said Thursday his client opposes the motion and will file paperwork in response.

Piazza, who initiated the suit in June 2013, has argued that his termination was political, saying that Lawton was politically affiliated with Griffith. Piazza also has said he found various problems with Griffith’s campaign finance reports.

According to the county’s new filing:

Lawton testified in a July 2015 deposition that he had no political affiliation with Griffith or knowledge of Griffith’s alleged “political power,” and any power Griffith may have possessed had no influence on the decision to terminate him.

Griffith, who resigned as controller in 2013 in connection with the illegal recording of three conversations without permission, also testified Lawton was not politically affiliated with him and never contributed to his campaigns or attended his political events.

The county asserted Piazza’s claim that he randomly selected Griffith for auditing was “totally contradicted” by employees.

Before announcing his election-office audit, Griffith had raised concerns about Piazza’s “repeated absences” from the office and his refusal to use the county’s time clock system, the county filing said.

Marisa Crispell now oversees the county election office.

Leonard Piazza Piazza

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

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