The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 9, 2013

Northumberland County judge disputes commissioner's allegations

By Francis Scarcella
The Daily Item

— SUNBURY — Stating that he wanted to return to the scene of the “attack,” President Judge Robert Sacavage on Tuesday denied allegations that he was involved in falsifying documents so that a friend could collect unemployment benefits.

In turn, Rick Shoch, the county commissioner making the charge, stood by his allegation that the judge had helped a former adult probation chief obtain the benefits illegally and called for an investigation by an outside agency.

Sacavage arrived for his press conference at 11 a.m., took a seat at the county commissioners table in the county administration building and spoke about the allegations leveled by Shoch, who left the conference early, but fired back in a statement Tuesday night.

Sacavage said, “This will not be a dog and pony show, and I chose this location because this is where Mr. Shoch decided to attack me when I was not around to defend myself.

“I could have done this in my courtroom and wore my robe and had sheriffs all around me, but I decided to come here.”

Sacavage said he would tell his side of the story and the verdict would be up to the residents of Northumberland County, and he also asked for Shoch to be removed as the liaison between commissioners and the courts.

Shoch sat in the front row and watched as court administrator Brandy Yasenchak passed out media packets that countered Shoch’s charges. About 40 minutes into the press conference Shoch left.

Shoch leaves early

After the press conference was over, Chief Clerk Gary Steffen announced that Shoch said he had to leave to attend a deposition.

Sacavage said: “Mr. Shoch wanted to paint this dark picture that I had been a part of corruption and was part of a co-conspiracy with other commissioners to scheme to set up a program that would reward a former employee by allowing him to receive unemployment benefits. But the truth is Mr. Shoch’s theories don’t hold up.”

During an Oct. 1 public meeting held by the commissioners to set row office salaries Shoch displayed a hire sheet that he said showed Sacavage signed off on former Adult Probation Chief John Wondoloski’s termination although Wondoloski actually retired.

The sheet had the signatures of Sacavage, Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Steve Bridy and other county officals.

Sacavage said he had a plan to save the county more than $100,000 and that plan included eliminating Wondoloski’s position.

“First I will not deny Wondoloski is a friend of mine, and he was a credited state trooper and we were lucky to get him after he left the state police,” Sacavage said. “But the fact is Mr. Shoch has said Mr. Wondoloski applied for unemployment benefits in June, which was before the salary board meeting in July. As an attorney and a commissioner you would think Mr. Shoch would have done his homework and made sure he had the proper evidence to back up these claims, but as you can all see Mr. Wondolsoki did not contact the state Department of Labor and Industry until July 21.”

Date mix-up

Shoch had previously stated Wondoloski had applied for unemployment compensation on June 23. Explaining the difference in dates on Tuesday night, he said: “When I spoke to the press I didn’t have the paper in front of me and the date was wrong, but the dates do not matter here.

“What matters is Mr. Wondoloski told everyone that would listen that he was retiring and the fact is he applied for unemployment benefits that he would not be entitled to get.”

At the press conference Sacavage asked human resource director Joe Picarelli to speak.

“Did I in any way ask you to forge any documents?” Sacavage asked. “Did I ever have a discussion with you? Did I ever give you any directions?”

“No,” Picarelli responded.

Picarelli said as far as he knew Wondoloski’s position had been eliminated.

Sacavage then turned to Shoch and said, “I’m pretty sure Mr. Shoch you will be hearing from Mr. Wondoloski one way or another soon.”

Shoch said later that he stood by what he said.

“I challenge the judge and Commissioners Clausi and Bridy to sign a paper and let’s get an outside agency like the FBI or attorney general’s office to come in to the county and investigate this,” Shoch said. “I also challenge them to all take a polygraph test.”

Sacavage also talked about an email that was provided to the media by Shoch. The email, which was sent out by adult probation supervisor Brian Updegrove, said a retirement party for Wondoloski would be held on a Friday and the office would be shut down for the day so everyone could spend time at the judge’s cabin.

Sacavage said that adult probation has held team building workshops for years, and one of those workshops was to be held the same time the email went out, but for some reason Updegrove sent out an email that was not authorized.

Updegrove said Sacavage never asked him to send out the email and it was not authorized by the judge.

Poor word choice

“I poorly chose my words in this email,” Updegrove said. “I misrepresented you and I didn’t use your words and I assumed the department knew what I meant when I sent it out.”

Sacavage said team building workshops are not days off and that employees work.

“It is not a picnic,” he said. “I did ask my daughter to get a head count for food for after to see how many people would be there.”

Updegrove also said in the email that the party go through SOS, meaning Santina Sacavage, the daughter of the judge.

“For Mr. Shoch to use my daughter is just low,” Sacavage said. “He was looking for ways to paint me in a bad light and using her was a good story, even if it was not true.”

Updegrove said the reason he used Santina Sacavage was because she speaks to the judge more frequently than he does.

Shoch: Email tells tale

In his statement, Shoch said: “I will let the email speak for itself. Once again you don’t just go and invite the office to your boss’s cabin for a party that he doesn’t know about. I will let the residents decide on the email.

“The fact is Mr. Wondoloski was retiring and he applied for these benefits. They were to have a party for him. In a separate email he is replying to an individual who worked in the department and telling them that he hasn’t received a date from the judge on when that retirement date will be. The emails speak for themselves.”

Sacavage also said Shoch is trying to blame the adult probation office for problems in the county prothonotary office at were found by the state auditor general.

“The courts were asked to take this office over in collections,” he said. “There were things that were wrong and the probation office was the office that really came in to save the day here.”

Sacavage ended his press conference by saying, “You don’t see many attorneys in the commonwealth lash out and accuse many judges of corruption.

Possible consequences

“You also don’t hear many judges say these things about attorneys, but I will say there is a consequence for that conduct. If you going to do something like this, then you better have done your homework and be able to defend what you say.

“I am asking for Mr. Shoch to be removed as a liaison from the commissioners to the courts, and I will review my responsibilities as a president judge and follow what the law requires me to do.”

Shoch said he was OK with being removed as liaison.

“If that will make the judge feel more comfortable that I am not there then that’s fine,” Shoch said.

After Sacavage completed his remarks, Commissioners Clausi and Bridy thanked the judge for “clearing the air.” Causi then asked attorneys to speak with Shoch. “Someone needs to speak to this man and stop all this,” Clausi said. “Or I am asking for Commissioner Shoch to resign.”

Bridy agreed and said Shoch needs to seek help.

“I am fearful for him,” Bridy said. “I am worried about his health.”

Shoch said Clausi and Bridy better think again.

“I am not resigning from anything,” Shoch said. “I will continue to do what is right and there are good honest people working in this county that are scared to tell the truth and I will continue to listen to them.”