Smoking gun finally brought down Carbon clerk of courts
One of the persistent questions I have heard, and one that I have been trying to answer for the past seven months, is why did it took so long to discover that nearly $47,000 was missing from the Carbon County Clerk of Courts office.
William McGinley, 60, a Jim Thorpe Democrat, who held the office for 28 years before he retired last May, has been charged with six violations in connection with the thefts. He is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing on Feb. 13 (postponed from Jan. 2) at the office of District Magistrate Eric Schrantz of Jim Thorpe to plead to the charges.
According to investigators from the state Attorney General’s office, McGinley has admitted taking the money and using it for gambling and other personal uses.
The previously publicized amount was about $43,000, but the actual number has been confirmed to me as $46,875, most of it in 2017-18. The breakdown is as follows: $1,055 in 2014, $4,655 in 2015, $4,825 in 2016 and $36,340 in 2017-18.
Taxpayers will be happy to know that the county’s insurance company has already reimbursed the county for the loss, except for the $1,000 deductible. According to investigators, McGinley has indicated that he wants to repay the money.
McGinley was re-elected to a four-year term in November 2017 and sworn in two months later. He abruptly announced last March that he was retiring as of May 1, 2018.
Two months after his retirement, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan when the county commissioners announced for the first time that there were major problems in the Clerk of Courts office.
Before the declaration that the office was a “mess,” as Commissioners’ Chairman Wayne Nothstein described it, one of the unsung heroes of this saga had already called for an investigation.
Following an audit of the Clerk of Courts accounts, county Controller Robert M. Crampsie, a Summit Hill Democrat, sent a letter April 30 to county District Attorney Jean A. Engler and the commissioners indicating that he had found “irregularities” in the office’s financial transactions.
Engler sent a request to the state Attorney General’s office asking for its intervention since she believed that it would have been a conflict of interest for her office to take over the investigation because her office and the Clerk of Courts office have significant interactions with each other numerous times daily. Engler also cited her office’s limited resources to handle an investigation of this scope. Aside from that, Engler has also had a long friendship with McGinley, who also is a political supporter.
The Attorney General’s office investigation culminated in charges being brought against McGinley on Dec. 21. He has been cited for theft by unlawful taking, receiving stolen property, theft by failing to make required disposition (“… he intentionally used the funds as his own and failed to make the required payment or disposition”), tampering with public records or information, obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function, and restricted activities/conflict of interest (took fees intended to be posted and credited to defendants’ court cases but instead kept them for his own use).
Scrutiny of McGinley’s accounting practices go back more than a decade. According to Crampsie, McGinley routinely failed to make timely deposits of funds to various accounts for which he was responsible. His actions led to a countywide policy being adopted by the commissioners on Aug. 17, 2006, to “ensure the timely deposits of county funds.”
The policy had three planks: Collected funds must be deposited in a timely manner after being received, no funds should be held overnight, and any lapse between receipt and deposit in a financial institution of greater of two days must be documented in a memo to the commissioners and controller.
Did this solve the problem? No, according to Controller Crampsie, because all row officers are elected and independent, so no one had a club to compel McGinley to comply.
When asked whether he pressed McGinley for explanations as to why he was not following the policy, Crampsie said McGinley “always had excuses.”
What was unknown publicly until my interview with Crampsie this month is that he had called for a similar investigation in 2016 when earlier discrepancies were found in McGinley’s accounts.
He said that the Attorney General’s office also investigated in that instance but found no smoking gun, so the inquiry was concluded without any formal action.
The state’s Auditor General’s office also did several audits during the period leading up to 2016. Its report was critical of internal controls but, again, found no smoking gun.
The Clerk of Courts office is now under the leadership of Francine Heaney, a Nesquehoning Democrat who was confirmed by the state Senate in 2018 to serve until Dec. 31. Heaney has announced her intention to run for the office.
Crampsie praised the changing of the guard, saying that he is “completely satisfied” with the progress being made to untangle the issues that were allowed to fester for so long.
This all boils down to one fundamental question: Who has oversight of row officers? The usual answer I get when I ask this question is: no one.
Many are surprised that the commissioners do not provide this type of supervision, but the commissioners say their hands are tied, because row officers are beholden to the electorate, and it is up to the public to give them a report card when and if they choose to run for re-election.
The problem with this line of thinking is that an unethical and dishonest person can do a lot of damage in four years. (Think of the “Mayhem” guy from the Allstate insurance commercials.)
I’d like to propose a modest start: Let’s limit row officeholders to three four-year terms. This still allows them to qualify for a county pension (after 10 years of service), but it prevents them from becoming lifelong, immovable public servants who get way too comfortable.
By Bruce Frassinelli | email@example.com