WILKES-BARRE — As the county district attorney jostles for command of a drug task force led by the office of the state’s embattled attorney general, local police say the longstanding lull has curbed investigations and hamstrung their efforts to combat the region’s drug epidemic.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she could not explain the holdup in the transfer or the lack of open dialogue between Kathleen Kane’s office and hers, but said something needs to give sooner or later so that local law enforcement agencies can have a clear direction.
“This situation is expanding a negative image in which it appears the good of the community is suffering and resources are lying dormant while the fight against drugs is not being pursued to the fullest extent,” Salavantis wrote in a May 27 letter to Kane’s office.
The second-term district attorney penned the three-page letter nearly two years after she first contacted the state Office of Attorney General to begin the transfer process.
But “less than cordial” meetings with Kane’s representatives, alleged attempts to undermine the transfer and numerous gaps in communication throughout the process have slowed the handoff and left local law enforcement on the front lines of the drug war wondering if it will ever materialize.
A long time coming
“It seems like it’s going to happen, but it never comes to fruition,” acting Hazleton Police Chief Jerry Speziale said of the transfer. “We need some definitive direction.”
As talk of the transfer loomed, Speziale said he was told to wrap up Hazleton drug investigations involving the state OAG. The acting chief said the uncertainty over the timing of the long-pending transfer puts the department “in limbo” out of concern any new cases will be swapped over.
The foot-dragging also puts the public at risk, he said.
“We need clear direction,” Speziale said. “We need to know who we’re answering to and what that structure is so we can bring forth the best cases possible to put the people putting poison on our streets and killing our children in jail.”
The state OAG currently supervises the Luzerne County Drug Task Force, a collaborative group made up of state agents and multiple local police departments that investigate drug activity. Cash and assets seized in civil forfeitures are split 50-50 between the offices, a figure which totalled just over $100,000 between 2013 and 2015, according to cash receipts provided by the district attorney’s office.
Once the transfer is complete, the county can claim 100 percent of the forfeitures. A larger share means funds will be distributed on a “needs basis” to those who handled the investigations, Speziale said.
Law mandates the funds be put back into drug enforcement efforts.
Kingston Borough Police Chief Michael Krzywicki said drug investigations often take patience and time, starting with surveillance and controlled buys before eventually leading to the execution of search warrants that sometimes require multiple agencies to carry out. His department would benefit from being able to fund overtime for officers engaged in those investigations, he said.
“Those type of (investigations) don’t wait,” Krzywicki said.
When Hanover Township Police Chief Albert L. Walker was made aware the full share of assets would be poured back into the local drug war, he was on board with the transfer, he said. Early on, there was a feeling the transfer “would a good thing” because it had been accomplished in other counties with successful results, he said.
District attorneys control approximately 44 of the state’s 55 task forces, according to state data.
Walker said he hasn’t changed his opinion of the transfer’s benefits, but acknowledged wishing it hadn’t taken this long.
“When (Salavantis) made the decision to move forward, we, believing it was going to take place in a timely fashion, dialed back our collaboration with (the OAG) for obvious reasons,” Walker said. “Because the delay was ongoing, we found ourselves in a position where drug crimes are still occurring, and we didn’t have all the tools at our disposal to do our job.”
A challenging process
Salavantis first sought to take the reigns of the task force in mid-2014 and was told the required paperwork would be prepared and sent to her offices. When summer faded into early fall without any word from Kane’s offices, Salavantis penned a more formal request for the documents, she said.
The first in-person attempt to discuss the transfer ended with Salavantis walking out of a meeting with Kane’s chief of staff, Jonathan Duecker, and Regional Agent-in-Charge Ivan Miranda, after the mood allegedly turned sour.
“It wasn’t a very polite meeting,” Salavantis said. “I expected a very welcoming meeting, and it just didn’t pan out the way I expected it to.”
In her letter to Kane’s offices, Salavantis decried Duecker’s alleged demeanor.
“To say Mr. Deucker was less than cordial is an understatement of the most grotesque proportions,” she wrote.
After another meeting in January, Salavantis’ staff was instructed where to send the paperwork — a hulking binder which included the transfer agreement with Kane’s office and signed memorandums from 46 municipalities on board with the handoff.
But after the materials were shipped out, the lines of communication again broke down and Salavantis’ office was in the dark, she said.
It wasn’t until Salavantis’ March 31 interview with the Times Leader Opinion Board and a subsequent article outlining the holdup that she received any communication from Kane’s office, Salavantis said.
At that time, former Kane spokesperson Chuck Ardo said it was Salavantis’ office who was to blame for the delay.
“The DA complained about the length of time it had taken to respond when the fact is that we didn’t get the required paperwork until the holidays, and then the office got to do its due diligence,” Ardo said.
Salavantis argued a clear transfer process was never outlined, nor was there any cooperation from Kane’s office.
After the article ran April 7, Salavantis said she received word the document review was complete and the transfer paperwork sat on a desk in Kane’s 16th floor Strawberry Square office in Harrisburg awaiting a signature.
It remained that way more than two months later, according to Kane’s acting spokesperson, Jeffrey A. Johnson.
Johnson, who became Kane’s eighth spokesperson since 2013 following Ardo’s resignation last month, said this week the paperwork “has reached the desk of Solicitor General Bruce Castor Jr. and is under review.”
That same day, Salavantis said she got a call from Castor saying he received the letter but was unfamiliar with the situation.
Johnson said Castor, Kane’s chief policy advisor, has final authority on legal matters and the paperwork only recently reached his desk. Asked if he could provide a date the transfer could occur, Johnson said he didn’t have one.
“I don’t have a timeline at this point,” he said.
Salavantis wrote in the letter that her office is in constant communication with local law enforcement, and said the information coming out of those outlets is that the delay is “deliberate, retaliatory and designed to benefit (Kane’s) local office.”
Asked to clarify her remarks, Salavantis said law enforcement officials were told by Kane’s agents that the task force would never come under her control.
Johnson declined to comment on the allegations.
“Despite assertions to the contrary, our goal is to ensure that all law enforcement officers continue to work cooperatively on drug investigations that will positively impact the communities in Luzerne County,” he said.
None of the police chiefs interviewed for this story said they had any knowledge of OAG agents impeding the transfer’s progress.
The uphill climb toward assuming control of the task force didn’t appear to be a struggle faced by other counties, including Lycoming County, which took the reigns on its task force in six months, Salavantis said.
Lycoming County District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt did not return a message seeking comment.
Salavantis said Kane, a former Lackawanna County prosecutor, understands the benefits of a county-controlled task force. Lackawanna County has had control of its task force for over 20 years, Lackawanna County District Attorney Shane Scanlon said.
Scanlon said “effectiveness and efficiency” are the main benefits of a county-controlled task force. Scanlon added that he looks forward to Salavantis assuming control of the task force and taking joint action in the ongoing drug war that often spills over the borders of both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.
“If Stefanie Salavantis can focus all her efforts in Luzerne County and has her portion of the (forfeiture) money at her disposal, she’s truly going to be able to target locations in her county that need that targeting in a more efficient way,” Scanlon said.
Fellow district attorneys sold Salavantis on the benefits of a county-controlled task force after she first took office. Not only could it streamline information, but it could also funnel more money into the county to combat drug work.
Salavantis was largely in favor of the plan, but said she “never imagined it would be this difficult.”
Salavantis, a Republican, will assume supervision of the task force once the transfer occurs. She said she plans to have zones or regions throughout the county that are overseen by coordinators.
“It’s better to have it in the hands of the people who know their streets better than anyone,” she said. “I believe it will be very beneficial and it will all be worth it.
“But until we get there,” she added, “I’m just concerned for our county.”