5 Pa. COs charged with sexually abusing female inmates fired

The charges stem from an investigation that began in July 2016, after attorney Matthew Comerford filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of one woman

By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, Pa. — Five of the six Lackawanna County Prison guards charged with sexually abusing female inmates were fired, according to an attorney representing the county.

Larry Moran Jr., labor counsel for the county, said James J. Walsh, George T. McHale, Paul J. Voglino, Jeffrey T. Staff and George R. Efthimiou were notified of the decision following disciplinary hearings held last week. The disciplinary hearing for a sixth guard, Mark Johnson, is scheduled for today, said his attorney, Robert Levant.

The employees were on administrative leave since Feb. 14, when they and a seventh defendant, former guard John Shnipes Jr. were charged based on a indictment issued by a statewide grand jury. Shnipes is a former Archbald councilman.

The charges stem from an investigation that began in July 2016, after Scranton attorney Matthew Comerford filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of one woman. He amended the suit five months later to include three more women. The Times-Tribune does not name victims of sexual assault.

The lawsuit prompted the county to refer the case to law enforcement. The Lackawanna County district attorney’s office initially handled the case, but later referred it to the state attorney general’s office.

Attorneys for several of the guards said their clients adamantly deny allegations against them. They criticized the county for firing them before their criminal cases are resolved. Five of the six guards, all of whom remain free on bail, have not had their preliminary hearings on the charges yet.

“I think it was a little too premature,” Staff’s attorney, Corey Kolcharno, said of the firing. “He has not even had the benefit of a preliminary hearing at this point. He enjoys the presumption of innocence.”

Joseph D’Andrea, Voglino’s attorney, also questioned why the county acted so quickly.

“I don’t understand how someone can be terminated without being proven guilty,” D’Andrea said. “I’m confident not only will he be acquitted, but the county will have to pay him back pay and reinstate him.”

Under the union contract, prison employees are entitled to a pre-termination hearing to give them an opportunity to address allegations against them.

Christopher Caputo, Walsh’s attorney, said his client could not effectively defend himself at the hearing because he is facing criminal charges. If he were to testify, he would have to waive his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.

“Anyone under serious criminal charges can’t do that,” Caputo said.

Caputo said Walsh is consulting prison union officials to determine if he can file a grievance challenging his firing. Among the questions is whether the county should have allowed the employees to remain on suspension pending resolution of the criminal cases. Attempts to reach union officials Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Joseph Toczydlowski,attorney for McHale, said he also intends to challenge his client’s firing.

“He certainly believes he has been wrongly terminated and without due process and intends to challenge that termination,” Toczydlowski said.

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

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