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Localnews
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No plea, sentencing for former clerk of courts in row office theft case

What had been scheduled as former Washington County clerk of courts Frank Scandale’s guilty plea to counts filed in connection with approximately $97,000 missing from his courthouse row office did not take place Monday when Senior Judge Gerald Solomon said he was “not inclined” to give his stamp of approval.

Therefore, Deputy Attorney General Evan Lowry, in a Washington County courtroom, asked that the matter be postponed.

Scandale, 52, of Canonsburg, said nothing during his time in front of the judge. He declined comment after the brief proceeding, and left the courthouse free on $100,000 unsecured bond.

Before the judge intervened, Lowry said Scandale had agreed to plead guilty to charges of theft by failure to make required disposition of funds, seven counts of theft and one count of misappropriating entrusted government property.

The penalty was to have been seven years’ probation, with the first two years spent on electronic home monitoring, and performing 150 hours of community service.

Solomon brought up Scandale’s oath of office – when a public official swears or affirms to discharge his or her duties “with fidelity,” and asked about the victims of the crime.

Lowry said the victims are “the citizens of Washington County,” but when Solomon noted no members of the board of county commissioners were present, defense attorney Michael DeRiso objected.

“I don’t think the county commissioners have standing,” he said. “They may have a political agenda. The commissioners, as elected officials, are not the victims,” or they were victimized no more or no less than the 200,000-some citizens of the county.

Solomon granted Lowry’s request for a postponement, which seemed likely to be set for one of two dates in August that were mentioned.

Outside the courtroom, DeRiso said, “I think there was some confusion the terminology used. Emails that went out to the court may have contained different language. It’s a nonincarceration sentence.”

Scandale waived his right to a formal arraignment, so Monday was his first time in court since he appeared before District Judge Robert Redlinger and waived his right to a preliminary hearing in January.

Nearly a year has passed since Washington County Controller Michael Namie informed the county commissioners of an audit of the clerk of courts office that uncovered financial irregularities. Money was missing from the row office, which handles payments in criminal cases and for various criminal cases and other miscellaneous matters.

The county commissioners turned Namie’s findings over to state police, whose investigation noted $50,534 in missing cash deposits in 2019 and $39,714 in missing checks, bringing the total to $96,716, charging documents indicated late last year.

Under the Fourth-Class County Code, the clerk of courts, like other county row offices, is independently elected and not under the jurisdiction of the county commissioners.

No charges were filed until after the November election, which Scandale, a Democrat, lost to former Washington Mayor Brenda Davis, who was among a small group of spectators in the courtroom Monday.

With the exception of Judge Traci McDonald Kemp and Coroner Timothy Warco, who ran with both major party nominations, Republicans swept Washington County offices and took control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 20 years.


Localnews
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Washington 'bombed' with colorful yarn

Cheryl Hopper has been planning to “bomb” the city of Washington with yarn for more than a year now.

Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter 

Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter

Jason Briggs works to attach the crochet art in front of the Main Street Pavilion Monday.

The Washington resident has been crocheting since November in preparation for her yarn bomb art installation on Main Street. On Monday, city firefighters used the ladder truck to help Hopper and her family hang a collection of mandala art, which she crocheted inside Hula-Hoops before binding them together to create a canopy for the Main Street pavilion.

“I’m glad it’s done,” Hopper said Monday morning, as she sat in the pavilion parking lot. “It was such a big project.”

She crocheted 134 Hula-Hoops on her own since November. Those that don’t make it into the canopy will be given to businesses on Main Street to hang.

“She took over our living room, then the sunroom, then she had some in the kitchen,” said Hopper’s husband, John, while helping hang the art Monday. “I’m anxious to get our rooms back.”

Over the weekend she and her family hung crocheted flowers in the trees along the business district. She also made a few tree and lamppost wraps along Main Street along with a couple garden gnomes to sit in the landscaping in front of the Observer-Reporter sign.

One of her most time-consuming projects was crocheting a Baby Yoda that sits at the base of the Whiskey Rebellion statue next to the Main Street Pavilion.

“Everyone asked me to make the Yoda,” she said.

Though she did it all on her own, Hopper said she did have folks donate yarn for the project.

Hopper, who’s been crocheting for 60 years, won second place in the nonprofessional design contest at the Crochet Guild of America’s National Convention in Chicago in 2017.

Katie Anderson / Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter 

Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter

Cheryl Hopper and her son-in-law, Jason Briggs, arrange mandala art that she crocheted before hanging it as a canopy in front of the Main Street Pavilion in Washington Monday.

This project, dedicated to Washington, was a lot of work, Hopper said, but it kept her busy during quarantine.

“At least I had something to do while I was sitting at home,” she said.

She did have to take a break from the project to knit a baby blanket for her grandson, who was born during the pandemic, but otherwise, she’s been working steadily on beautifying the city with the vibrant color patterns.

The original plan was to install the project at the end of May and leave it up for the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though many events in the downtown were canceled, Hopper said it will still be up for the farmer’s markets, held from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.

“People need to have something like this to see when they’re driving around the downtown,” she said.

Hopper has also asked that Washington business owners and residents “keep an eye on it” while it’s up, so no one steals or vandalizes it.


Business
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Online mistakes, confusion play havoc with UC payments

The best question may have been the last question, and Susan Dickinson had a rapid-fire response Monday afternoon. Actually, two responses.

During the state Department of Labor & Industry’s weekly news conference, a reporter from Southwestern Pennsylvania asked: What is the biggest mistake applicants make in filing for unemployment compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments?

“Prior to the pandemic, there were certain mistakes people would make,” said Dickinson, director of Unemployment Compensation Benefits Policy for L&I. “One of the biggest since then is people saying they were not able and available for work, when they should have answered they were able and available for work.

“Another answer people are getting wrong is whether they are unemployed due to the disaster. They answer no, and no means no payments. Ask yourself, ‘Is the pandemic the reason you’re not working?’”

She said misunderstanding of the latter question, corrected later, led to “a mass release of payments” last week totaling $154 million for 27,000 residents.

Unemployment compensation is a complicated road to navigate, Dickinson and L&I director Jerry Oleksiak acknowledge every Monday during the virtual get-together. Dickinson’s advice, without preaching, is that consumers “read what we give you thoroughly and understand the program.” Mistakes can result in delays.

Back payments and getting through to L&I continue to be foremost among complaints from Pennsylvanians seeking benefits. Dickinson said the backdated button, which caused confusion and led to benefits delays online, was eliminated late last week.

For clarity, she recommended that applicants and claimants refer to the troubleshooting guide the department is updating on its Facebook page. Dickinson said email is an efficient way to contact L&I, as is Live Chat. Call center lines are usually jammed on Mondays and Tuesdays, least congested on Thursdays and Fridays. Even more help is en route, including the addition of staff from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, a student loan organization.

As for numbers, Oleksiak said $18 billion has been paid in unemployment claims, roughly split between regular UC and federal CARES Act-created benefits (PUA and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation).

The secretary added that 90% of claimants between March 15 and May 15 have received payments.

L&I will have another weekly town hall at 1 p.m. Thursday. To participate, online or by telephone, visit https://access.live/PAlabor or call 833-380-0719.


Localnews
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Washington, Greene report no change in COVID cases, while Allegheny experiences an increase

Washington and Greene counties recorded no new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, according to data released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health Monday afternoon.

The total case count in Greene County stands at 35 since data began being collected in March, with 168 in Washington County. Allegheny County added 45 new cases, bringing its total to 2,220. The state’s health department also reported three new deaths as a result of the coronavirus in the last 24 hours.

The statewide total of COVID-19 cases is 82,186, with 6,426 deaths being attributed to the virus, an increase of three since Sunday.

Allegheny County has reported its highest one-day spike in daily cases since the beginning of May. Debra Bogen, the county’s health director, told reporters Monday afternoon that they are “seeing primarily cases among younger people, those most likely to be out and about.”

Most of Southwestern Pennsylvania moved into the green phase of reopening the economy earlier this month, but Bogen said many of the residents who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 had recently traveled out of state. Bogen also said she did not believe the June 2 primary or the Black Lives Matter protests were responsible for the increase in cases.

Bogen would not say where many of those who tested positive had traveled to.

“We hope we don’t see these go up in the coming days,” Bogen said.

Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County’s executive, said there had been a “natural relaxation” in behavior since the county entered the green phase, and that he hoped “this is a few days of data and this will go down.”

“Let’s continue to be responsible for each other,” he said. “We’ve all got to be in this together.”


Localnews
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Toothman asks that his case be assigned to Judicial Diversion Program

Greene County Judge Farley Toothman, through his attorneys, asked that instead of facing a public proceeding convened by the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline, he be allowed to enter the Judicial Diversion Program.

The Judicial Diversion Program is described as an alternative to formal disciplinary procedures and sanctions. Granting the admission to the program is considered a privilege, not a right, and it provides mentoring, educational, remedial and rehabilitative programs for judicial officials.

In a formal response to action brought against him last month, Toothman’s attorneys, Bethann R. Lloyd and Amy J. Coco of Pittsburgh, note that the complaint against the judge focuses on events that happened from 2015 to early 2018 when “education and mentorship were just emerging as approved” or mandated to improve the quality of the judiciary. “Prior to that, judges were on their own.”

Also, too much time has elapsed over “outdated assertions of misconduct,” he asserted.

Of the most serious charge – that Toothman retaliated against defendant Christy McCarty by jailing her after she accused his law clerk of shoplifting in 2017 – “Judge Toothman’s defense is prejudiced by the passage of time,” his lawyers wrote.

Toothman gave a deposition in the matter more than two years after it occurred, according to a footnote in the legal document, and the judge “had difficulty recalling the specifics of his interaction with the store personnel and police.”

He also claimed he lacked “significant courtroom experience” before he was nominated to fill a vacancy on the Greene County bench in January 2009. He had been county solicitor for seven years and served two terms as a county commissioner.

“Prior to his nomination,” the attorneys wrote in their pretrial motion Toothman did not have the opportunity to attend what’s known as “judge school,” which was not available to him because his appointment was outside the municipal election cycle. Neither was continuing judicial education required 11 years ago.

At the time and thereafter, his attorneys cited a litany of turmoil in Greene County Court, including “disharmony between the commissioners and the court, a change in sheriffs, no certified constables to serve a backlog of 4,700 delinquent warrants and other paperwork, lax procedures to protect confidential court matters, and concerns over the accuracy of records management.” Vacancies in magistrate’s positions resulted in the judge filling in for a time.

Toothman’s 15-page response, which appeared online Monday, also included exhibits and other documents, bringing the filing to 37 pages. One piece of 2018 correspondence from Thomas B. Darr, court administrator of Pennsylvania, is labeled “personal and confidential” and is heavily redacted.

In it, Darr wrote to Toothman, “Your personal management style and consequent interaction with staff – and possibly members of the bar – creates its own level of dysfunction that is likely counter-productive.”

His lawyers countered, “The judge reaped no personal benefit from any of the actions at issue in this matter,” and “all matters have been under some form of investigation” for approximately two years by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts and the Judicial Conduct Board.

In 2018, the administrative office received a complaint about Toothman that had to do with the judge’s treatment of staff employed by Greene County, some of which are reflected in the Judicial Conduct Board’s findings.

The administrative office recommended that year that Toothman have a “peer advisor” – former Blair County President Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva – and that he take several courses, including “Special Consideration for the Rural Court Judge” in Reno, Nev., offered by the National Judicial College.

Darr also recommended that Toothman complete training online to “assist in increasing awareness and promoting the prevention of any and all forms of harassment.”

The judge noted in late 2018 he earned a score of 97.4% in a 12-unit “Different Work – First Course Effective Supervision” that he completed in one week.

“The conduct at issue has not been repeated,” according to Toothman’s lawyers.

In a matter that the Judicial Conduct Board raised about Toothman closing a courtroom in a protection from abuse case, he contends that this was “not a violation of any law or duties” and none was cited in the complaint, and that two children were involved.

He asked that the allegation be dismissed, and noted that during his administration he has accomplished nearly 30 improvements in Greene County Court, including negotiating confidentiality agreements with county union personnel, formalizing an annual investiture of elected officials and a Law Day observance with students participating; creating “Standard Practice for Constable Certification,” monitoring the use of Greene County Act 13 natural gas fee in the judicial branch, meeting quarterly with a board of judges, implementing centralized booking, a specialty drug court and re-entry job training partnerships.

Toothman, 64, was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge H. Terry Grimes in 2009. His father, the late Glenn Toothman, was also president judge in Greene County.

He continues to hear cases in Greene County while action by the Court of Judicial Discipline is pending, according to Court Administrator Sheila Rode.

Toothman is a graduate of the Duquesne University School of Law.