Jennifer D. Wade Journal

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Blog posts December 2009

The Word on Corruption

Can you feel the anticipation? In just a couple short weeks from now, the AMERICAN DIALECT SOCIETY will reveal its choice for the 2009 Word of the Year (WOTY). Early nominations include the likes of sexting, birther and Octomom. As always, I will let you know the winning word when it is chosen.

I know what word I would choose. It's not some newfangled compound or trendy catch phrase. No, it's an old-fashioned word that we've come to appreciate in a whole new way: Corruption. As a resident of Pennsylvania in general - and NEPA in particular - I can think of no other word that is more representative of the events of the past year.

Just how pervasive has the word "corruption" been? Well, let's start with the obvious. A phrase that seems to pop up in almost every local newscast these days is "the on-going corruption scandal in Luzerne County." So far, 23 people have been charged by the Feds. That tally includes, among others, two judges, one county commissioner and assorted school board members.

Of course, you know that the number of indictments won't stop at 23. Fortunately, the US Attorney's office has created a special Web page to help us keep track. You can check it out HERE. Greg Skrepenak's name hasn't been added yet, but you can bet it's coming soon. How many other names will be added remains to be seen but, from what I'm hearing, a safe guess is "lots."

The Feds are now feeling their way into neighboring Schuylkill County. Two young men face Federal hate crimes charges in connection with the beating death of a Mexican immigrant. The police chief and two officers stand accused of obstructing the investigation into that beating death. And, the chief and a fourth officer face Federal charges for allegedly shaking down illegal gambling operations. Published reports say the Feds have set up a tipline for people in Schuylkill County to call with information about other possible corruption. They did the same thing in Luzerne County, and we've seen where that's led. Will an "on-going corruption scandal in Schuylkill County" be next? Time will tell.

At the state level, we have the Pennsylvania attorney general's on-going corruption investigation known as "Bonusgate." The AG got indictments against a bunch of Democrats. Then, some Republicans got indicted. Now, a few more Democrats. They're all accused of basically using taxpayer money to fund political campaigns. According to prosecutors, they went about this alleged wrongdoing in different ways but always working toward the goal of political gain. I'm not sure what the total number of indictments is here. Around 25, I think. But, that number could increase any day now. As I said, the investigation is on-going.

The whole situation reminds me of a time a few years ago when the corporate types required us lowly employees to take - and pass - an ethics test. It was ten questions, I think, which could be answered correctly by applying what a co-worker broke down into three basic principles:

  1. Don't take anything from anybody;
  2. Don't give anything to anybody;
  3. If you see anybody doing either of those things, tell somebody.

Maybe they don't exactly qualify as rules to live by, but they seem like pretty good tips for avoiding a corruption scandal, on-going or otherwise.

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What Holiday Mode?

With only two weeks left in the year, everyone at work is in full holiday mode. That means lots of people on vacation, and the people who are at work really need time to sample all the goodies brought in by people from other departments. Basically, when the newsroom is in holiday mode, the actual news is supposed to be in holiday mode, too.

Not so this week. Monday, as I recall was pretty quiet. But, Tuesday, Wednesday and today have been intense. We've had several big stories, any of which could have led a newscast had not another big story come along to trump it.

Tuesday morning brought the arrests of two young men and four Shenandoah police officers on Federal charges. The young men are accused of hate crimes in connection with the July 2008 beating death of a Mexican immigrant. The young men are almost finished serving the time they got after being convicted of lesser charges at the county level. But, the Federal charges carry potential life sentences, so I'm guessing the guys won't be released on probation any time soon.

Three of the police officers, including the chief, are accused of obstructing the investigation into the death. The fourth officer, along with the chief, is accused of extorting money from illegal gambling operations (video poker) in the borough.

Tuesday's arrests in Shenadoah required coverage in the borough and also in Wilkes-Barre, where the police officers were arraigned in Federal court. In all, three reporters worked the story on Tuesday. That topped the one reporter we assigned to the recall of 800,000 doses of H1N1 flu vaccine by the manufacturer which is based - where else? - in the Poconos. It also topped the arrest of a powerful state lawmaker, his aide, and a former lawmaker/current Revenue Secretary in the so-called "Bonusgate" scandal. We sent a reporter to Harrisburg to cover that story.

Wednesday brought more developments as we sent two more reporters to Shenandoah for follow-ups and a third reporter to Federal court, where the four police officers (who were held in jail overnight) appeared for bail hearings. The timing of the hearings added extra pressure as they ended pretty much as our 5 pm news began.

Once again, the Shenandoah story trumped a story that could have led a newscast on any other day - a hearing for a man accused of trying to make off with millions of dollars worth of artwork done by his famous father. The museum is in the Poconos, and the fact that the son used a backhoe to break into the gallery last week adds extra spice to the story. At the hearing, the son talked on camera to our reporter and claimed to have notarized evidence that his father gave him permission to get the artwork "by any means possible." We also had two guilty pleas by suspects in the on-going corruption scandal in Luzerne County. Their guilty pleas happened in late morning. A reporter covered the pleas live at noon but, by the evening newscasts, each plea only rated a 20 second vo.

Had enough? I had. But then Thursday rolled around and so did more big stories. We sent a reporter back to Shenandoah, where he learned that the chief and three officers (more than half of the borough's seven-member force) had been suspended without pay. But, the really big news came out of Luzerne County where a commissioner long-suspected of being caught up in the corruption scandal resigned. It's also where money may be missing from a county office, and where county officials abruptly took down the manger/menorah display at the courthouse after threats of a lawsuit from the ACLU. You know things are bad in Luzerne County when even the baby Jesus gets the boot.

So, we had one reporter on the manger story, which broke in the morning. Word of the commissioner's resignation started surfacing in the early afternoon and ultimately required coverage by three reporters to handle the various and late-breaking aspects of the story.

What will Friday bring? I'm not sure if we'll be in Shenandoah yet again, but I'm sure we'll be able to find a couple, two, tree follow-ups in Luzerne County. And central PA's been awfully quiet. Maybe too quiet. We'll see.

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