Ex-Washington County employee files whistleblower suit

August 19, 2014
Washington County Courthouse

A former Washington County juvenile probation officer filed a whistleblower lawsuit Monday in county court claiming he was “unlawfully fired” after he reported the county’s chief probation officer was making inappropriate recommendations to place children at a treatment center where his girlfriend worked.

David Scrip, 53, of Monongahela, claims Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca and Thomas Jess, the director of the county’s probation services, fired him after he anonymously reported Daniel Clements, his direct supervisor as director of the county’s Juvenile Probation Office, was having an intimate relationship with a woman who worked at Abraxas Youth and Family Services, a youth treatment and detention center. Clements also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Scrip believed the relationship was a conflict of interest, and Clements coerced recommendations to have children placed at the facility to benefit his girlfriend, Beth Stutzman, whose job it was to solicit juvenile probation departments to send children to her company’s facilities, the suit states. She previously worked with the probation department but left in September 2011 to work with Abraxas, according to the lawsuit.

Noah Geary, Scrip’s attorney, said Scrip was abiding by the new code of conduct for employees of the Unified Judicial System when he alerted officials to the “unethical practices.” The code of conduct was revamped after the 2011 “Kids for Cash” scandal in Luzerne County, where two judges were accused of accepting money from a builder of juvenile facilities in return for contracting with the facilities and imposing lengthy juvenile sentences.

“The new code of conduct imposed duty on Scrip,” Geary said. “He complied, and it cost him his job, which is disgusting.”

Scrip, who worked with the Juvenile Probation Department for 25 years, composed an anonymous letter in May 2012 “revealing and protesting the unethical practice,” and mailed it to Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille and other officials, the lawsuit states. An investigation was launched as a result but failed to address the problem, Scrip alleges. The lawsuit calls the investigation a “sham” and claims that O’Dell Seneca and Jess manipulated the results.

A second letter addressed to the investigator from Scrip in July 2012 was leaked, and a few weeks later O’Dell Seneca “summoned the Juvenile Probation Office for a meeting and claimed that the investigation found there was no relationship between Clements and Stutzman,” the suit alleges. The judge, according to the lawsuit, also claimed the investigation found there was “no conflict of interest and that no children had been unethically placed in Abraxas.” Scrip claims she concluded the meeting by telling employees that she “would not tolerate any criticism of Clements nor anyone undermining his authority.”

That same month, Scrip alleges the defendants began to discipline him for “pretextual reasons.” He cites “disparate treatment for missing one telephone call while being on-call.” He was fired Feb. 18, and was told he violated O’Dell Seneca’s “Aug. 12, 2012, directive,” the suit claims.

In his initial letter, Scrip said he provided statistics from the Juvenile Probation Office showing a dramatic increase in Washington County placements at Abraxas. In the two years prior to Stutzman’s employment with Abraxas, just 14 of the department’s 82 placements were at Abraxas. Between September 2011, when Stutzman accepted a position with Abraxas, and April 2012, 20 of the 50 placements went to Abraxas, the letter stated.

Washington County Controller Mike Namie provided figures that showed the Juvenile Probation Department spent $520,855 for Abraxas placements in 2009. That number dropped to $453,029 in 2011, then rose to $520,901 in 2012 and $595,090 in 2013. So far this year, $219,900 was spent.

The lawsuit also alleges O’Dell Seneca was eavesdropping on Juvenile Master Dennis Paluso, who caught on to the “coerced recommendations of the probation officers, the blatant conflict of interest between the juvenile department and Abraxas, and had begun rejecting inappropriate recommendation to Abraxas.” The lawsuit claims the eavesdropping began in March 2012, after O’Dell Seneca had a digital recording system installed in the courtrooms of the county courthouse.

Paluso could not be reached for comment.

As a result of losing his job, Scrip claims he suffered a loss of back and future pay, a loss of back and future benefits, emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience, a loss of professional opportunities, a loss of personal and professional reputation and a loss of community standing, among other things. He is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages.

Jess declined to comment Tuesday. Clements did not return calls seeking comment. O’Dell Seneca’s office directed the Observer-Reporter to court administrator Patrick Grimm, who said he was unable to comment on pending litigation. A call to Abraxas for comment was not immediately returned.

Inquires were made by the Observer-Reporter to see if the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts or the Judicial Conduct Board were conducting investigations of their own as a result of the lawsuit. Both agencies declined to comment.

Geary said there were federal and state components to the lawsuit. He also filed the matter with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and plans to file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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