Posted on Mon, Nov. 16, 2009
By William Ecenbarger For The Inquirer
WILKES-BARRE – Early in the spring, the FBI made an extraordinary appeal that was carried by newspapers and broadcast media throughout northeastern Pennsylvania:
“If you are a teacher, prospective teacher, employee, or prospective employee of any kind who has been required to provide money, or anything else of value, to any individual in connection with being hired at any public school in northeastern Pennsylvania . . . you are requested to immediately contact either Special Agent Richard Southerton or Special Agent Joseph Noone in the FBI’s Scranton office at telephone number 570-344-2404.”
Almost immediately, the telephones were ringing. To date, six school board members have been indicted on charges they accepted bribes in exchange for hiring teachers in their districts. The FBI won’t comment, but no one doubts there will be more charges.
Based on indictments and subsequent guilty pleas, the going rate for a teaching job is $5,000 in the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and the Hanover Area School District.
“The harsh truth is that it costs at least a couple of thousand dollars to get a job in a school district around here,” says Thomas Baldino, who has taught political science at Wilkes University for 20 years. “You either pay it or you go well outside the area to teach. I have had really bright students who can’t get teaching jobs here because they can’t afford to pay for them.”
Most of the attention in the federal probe into official wrongdoing in northeastern Pennsylvania has justifiably focused on the $2.8 million kickback scheme in which two Luzerne County judges allegedly sentenced juveniles to detention centers without legal representation. However, indictments have been dropping like cinder blocks outside the courthouse as well.
It’s all merely the latest chapter in a legacy of official wrongdoing that stretches back more than a half-century and is punctuated by coal barons and mobsters – a “culture of corruption” that has snared judges and congressmen, legislators and councilmen.
Philadelphians upset with corruption in their city may find a mild tranquilizer in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, which includes Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and Hazleton, where the FBI and the Justice Department have been intermittently probing public officials and racketeers for more than a half-century.
Baldino says he was born and raised in South Philadelphia and is “no stranger to crooked politicians.” But, he adds, “the difference is that in Philly we have at least had episodes of reform, like Clark and Dilworth in the ’50s. Here, there’s never been a reform movement. What we’re seeing here today is the way it’s always been.”
“The level of corruption is unbelievable. It’s epidemic,” says Robert Wolensky, a Luzerne County native who teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin but returns regularly as an adjunct professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. “It wasn’t until I moved to Wisconsin that I realized that corruption wasn’t a normal part of government.”
Baldino and Wolensky agree that the common denominator in the historic corruption has been jobs. “The Depression started here early, when the coal companies started laying off the miners in the 1920s,” Wolensky said. “People became desperate for jobs, and the only jobs were with the local governments.”
“Today,” he added, “paying to get a job is viewed as the proper thing to do – a way of saying thank you. Many public jobs are expected to be given only after a bribe. If you don’t put the thousand dollars in the envelope, someone else will because they are as desperate as you.”
Baldino said the citizens of northeastern Pennsylvania were “very forgiving” of government miscreants. He cited the case of Daniel J. Flood, the flamboyant congressman from Wilkes-Barre who was elected to a 16th term in 1978 while under federal indictment for bribery and perjury. He resigned two years later and died in 1994. The Wilkes-Barre Area School District, one of the districts where teachers’ jobs were sold, includes the Daniel J. Flood Elementary School.
Late Friday, Gene Stilp, a Wilkes-Barre native who has been active in opposing corruption at the state level, placed “Crime Watch” posters in the Luzerne County Courthouse to give courthouse employees a way of reporting misdeeds. The posters, which depict the courthouse with a big eye, urge respondents to send their information to a box at the Wilkes-Barre post office.
“If anyone thinks that the end of corruption within the Luzerne County Courthouse is in sight, or that all past abuses have been discovered, they are sadly mistaken,” Stilp said.