AOPC report failed to address whistleblower concerns, attorney claims

August 28, 2014
The interior of the Washington County Courthouse

A report issued following the investigation into allegations of unethical practices at Washington County Juvenile Probation Office failed to address concerns raised by a former county employee who claims he was fired in retaliation for exposing the situation, his attorney said.

The investigation, which was ordered by Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts after Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca received an unsigned letter alleging unethical and unprofessional behavior by the department heads of the juvenile probation office, was completed in the summer of 2012.

It was later discovered that David Scrip, 53, of Monongahela, wrote the letter alleging the county’s chief probation officer, Daniel Clements, was coercing subordinates to make inappropriate recommendations to place children at a treatment center where his girlfriend worked.

Scrip believed the relationship was a conflict of interest, and Clements coerced recommendations to have children placed at Abraxas Youth and Family Services to benefit his girlfriend, Beth Stutzman, whose job it was to solicit juvenile probation departments to send children to her company’s facilities, the letter states.

Scrip filed a whistleblower lawsuit last week, claiming he was “unlawfully fired” after exposing the situation. Noah Geary, Scrip’s attorney, said the investigation failed to focus on allegations raised by Scrip. Instead, it focused on a single line in Scrip’s seven-page letter, in which he states the staff does not want to be involved in a “similar Luzerne County Juvenile Probation scandal.”

The reference is to 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.

“It does not even address whether or not Clements was in a relationship with Stutzman,” Geary said of the report. “This is the premise of the whole situation. This Rieland guy did not even interview Stutzman.”

The report, which was obtained by the Observer-Reporter, was written by James Rieland and determined there was no “cash for kids scheme operating in Washington County,” the document indicates. Rieland’s position and background were not contained in the report, and an AOPC spokesman declined to comment on how individuals are chosen to conduct investigations. The AOPC also declined to provide the report.

The report determined no one from the JPO or the court gained personally or financially by placing youth at Abraxas, that the members of the JPO understand the acceptance of gifts is inappropriate and in violation of court policy and there was no “substantial increase” in placements at Abraxas. The report also notes it is not unusual for a court employee to resign and accept a position with a service provider, as Stutzman did.

However, the report does not address whether there was a relationship between Clement and Stutzman or if such a relationship would constitute a conflict of interest.

Pablo Paez, the vice president of corporate relations for The GEO Group, Inc., the Florida-based parent company for Abraxas, said Abraxas received youth placements from Washington County since 1981.

“This alleged conflict of interest was fully investigated approximately two years ago by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, and the investigation did not substantiate these allegations,” Paez said in an email.

Among others, Rieland interviewed O’Dell Seneca, former county Judge Janet Moschetta Bell, former juvenile Master Dennis Paluso and former court administrator Christine Weller. All of the probation officers were also interviewed, the report shows. Stutzman was not questioned.

Various county officials said they were unaware of the allegations or the AOPC investigation until the lawsuit was filed.

The investigation also reviewed the number of Washington juveniles placed at the facility. During the interview process, Rieland noted “several people interviewed stated that in the last nine months, probation officers were making more recommendations for Abraxas than in the past.” It was also noted in the report not all of the recommendations were accepted by the court.

“If the court was not satisfied with the rationale of the JPO, the court offered another residential program,” Rieland said in the report. “This is the way it is supposed to work. The JPO makes a recommendation, testimony is taken and the court enters an order.”

Fiscal payments made to the top seven treatment providers for the JPO over a three-year period were provided in the report. In 2009-10, the report claims Washington County paid Abraxas $507,896; in 2010-11, $429,207, and, in 2011-12, $433,598.

Data provided by Washington County Controller Mike Namie resembled the AOPC report data. In 2009-10, the JPO spent $511,008 for Abraxas placements. That number dropped to $477,847 in 2010-11, and fell again in 2011-12 to $433,724. There is a discrepancy that the county is unable to explain for the 2010-11 fiscal year. The AOPC reports a smaller expense from that year than the county. Namie said he did not receive a Right To Know request from the AOPC for the data, and he did not know who provided it.

The report notes there can be “substantial variation in payments from year to year.” The variation can be a result of changes in needs, program options, problems with service provider’s performance or a shift in philosophy, like a move toward shorter placement.

Rieland did find an increase in payments from Washington County to another treatment facility, Mid-Atlantic. In 2009, the county paid the treatment center $42,792. The AOPC report shows the county did not contract with the facility. In 2011-12, the county paid the center $506,487, the report shows. The AOPC report concurred with the data.

Rieland also reported he found no irregularities in the “number of youths placed at Abraxas.” Scrip, in his letter, noted 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.

The Observer-Reporter filed a Right To Know request for the placement data with the county. The requested data showed 86 Washington County youths, both male and female, were placed with Abraxas between 2009 and present.

Secondary findings in the report included poor office morale, a lack of transparency in management decisions and poor organizational communication, among other things. The report showed the majority of the staff interviews described a “stressful work environment where they fear for their jobs or other subtle means of punishment.” Rieland noted in the report the “environment is most certainly part of the reason why one or more JPOs authored the unsigned letter.”

“Management by fear is not productive and most likely negatively impacts the services to youth and families,” Rieland said in the report. “Real or perceived, the current work environment is not productive or heathy.”

Rieland could not be reached for comment. Washington County Court Administrator Patrick Grimm declined to comment.

Of the AOPC report, Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said, “We have not gotten a copy. Juvenile probation is under the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. We have no input except that it’s taxpayer-funded.

“We have no say on hiring, firing or management of employees. That’s all (up to) the president judge. It’s under the court system. We didn’t know what was going on. We weren’t briefed on it. It’s been made very clear the commissioners have no say in those matters.” The board of commissioners was aware Scrip filed for unemployment compensation, but Maggi said the other members of the board of commissioners were not privy to background information about his case.

“When the county is sued, we get a copy of the lawsuit,” Maggi continued. “We were not made aware of that until after it was filed. We are not in the chain of command of the probation office. We were not in the loop.”

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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