Judge considers contempt charges in Trinity case

April 10, 2013
Bus drivers for Trinity Area School District leave Washington County Courthouse Wednesday following a hearing on the district’s bus contract. - Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Trinity Area School District and two local bus companies returned to Washington County Court Wednesday to argue over whether two school board members should be held in contempt of court for voting last week to award the district’s transportation contract to an out-of-state firm.

President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca has 90 days to rule on whether directors Sandra Clutter and Jenene Hupp, both of whom work as school bus drivers, violated the terms of a court settlement in which they agreed to refrain from discussing or voting on Trinity transportation issues at a time when the board considered bids for awarding a new transportation contract.

“When did the court say (the settlement) no longer exists, that you don’t have a conflict anymore?” O’Dell Seneca said. “We don’t act like the Wild West.”

Clutter and Hupp are former employees of GG&C Bus. Co. of Washington, which apparently was the low bidder on the new Trinity contract. GG&C, which shares Trinity routes with Schweinebraten Bus Co., sued the district in December to prevent the women and a third director from voting on the contract, resulting in the Jan. 30 settlement signed by O’Dell Seneca. The two women then voted with a board majority April 1 to award an $8.86-million busing contract to First Student of Ohio. The contract would not have been approved without their votes.

Testimony at Wednesday’s proceeding indicated the two women voted on the contract on the advice of the district’s solicitor, whose opinion was that they would not violate the state Ethics Act by voting in favor of First Student because they are not employed by the company. They work as drivers for Schweinebraten and abstained on a motion to award the contract jointly to that company and GG&C. The district’s solicitors are Washington attorneys Chris Furman and Dennis Makel.

Furman raised the Ethics Act defense in court, but the judge said she was only there to hear arguments about whether the settlement was violated.

“We are not here to determine the underlying issues,” she said.

She had a similar response to arguments by GG&C’s attorney, Richard C. Kelly of Montgomery, concerning his allegations the school board violated the state Sunshine Act requiring open meetings by holding a straw vote during an April 1 closed-door session that had directors in agreement on awarding the contract to First Student.

“You are asking me to decide on issues that should come up at trial,” O’Dell Seneca said. “Will you begin this case?”

Clutter took the witness stand and said she was told by counsel she could vote on the First Student contract, which she claimed she reviewed for an hour in the district superintendent’s office after seeing it for the first time before the April 1 meeting.

“I understood it was not a conflict of interest if I voted for someone other than my company,” Clutter said before contending that the district had received numerous complaints about GG&C and that she reports bus safety infractions outside of her role as a board member.

“So you are participating in transportation matters at the school district?” Kelly asked.

Clutter said she received advice in 2009 from Makel that there were no conflicts regarding her serving on the board and being a bus driver.

Hupp also testified, saying she never read the settlement order in the case, something that did not appear to sit well with O’Dell Seneca.

“They never even read the order?” the judge asked before recessing the hearing.

Meanwhile, Schweinebraten filed a request for declaratory judgment Wednesday at the courthouse in a bid to formally join GG&C’s case against the school district, its board and individual directors Clutter, Hupp and Henry Clemens, who has worked as a bus driver in the district and was named in the settlement. He abstained from voting on the transportation contract April 1.

“It’s essentially the same case GG&C filed, except the Schweinebraten complaint includes no request for damages,” said William Speakman, attorney for Schweinebraten.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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