Jun. 10—Former Old Forge Borough Council President Robert Semenza Jr. will plead guilty next week to a federal charge that accuses him of taking bribes to help a business owner being sued by the borough, according to investigators.
Semenza, 47, was charged Wednesday with soliciting, demanding and accepting cash payments in exchange for performing and promising to perform official acts between January 2019 and February 2020. In total, Semenza pocketed between $6,500 and $15,000, according to a plea agreement he signed May 18. Semenza's bribery charge carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, according to his plea agreement.
As part of the plea deal, Semenza agreed to resign from borough council. He also agreed that he will not seek or accept any public office or position of public trust for at least 10 years. His attorney, Jason Mattioli, confirmed Semenza submitted his resignation from council in May, days prior to signing his plea deal. Mattioli declined to provide further comment, writing in a text that, "At this time, it would (be) inappropriate for me to comment."
Investigators said Semenza's actions involved a local business owner sued by Old Forge Borough over a dispute about borough zoning ordinances. The councilman agreed to vote on the business owner's behalf in matters before borough council, to advocate on behalf of the local business owner with council, the borough solicitor and zoning officials, and to propose a favorable resolution for the civil litigation council and solicitor in exchange for cash payments, according Acting United States Attorney Bruce D. Brandler.
The U.S. Attorney's office did not identify the business or its owner, but county court records coinciding with federal charging papers indicate it is Walter Stocki Jr., owner of Scrap Enterprises, Rear 105 N. Keyser Ave.
According to federal charging papers, on or about July 31, 2018, Old Forge Borough Council obtained an injunction from the Lackawanna County Court of common Pleas against a business and its owner. The injunction required the individual to cease all activities violating the borough zoning ordinances, among other things. On or about May 9, 2019, the court determined the business owner was in violation of the July 31, 2018, injunction and ordered the owner to pay a bond of more than $5,000, according to the charging papers. On Aug. 5, 2019, Old Forge council petitioned the court to hold the individual in contempt of the order.
Lackawanna County Judge Thomas J. Munley ordered Stocki on July 31, 2018, to "immediately cease any and all activity on the property." On May 9, 2019, Munley gave Stocki 100 days to to immediately cease all business, clean up his property and post a $20,000 bond. Three months later, the borough petitioned the court to hold Stocki in contempt.
Stocki, when reached Wednesday by the newspaper, declined to comment on the charges.
From January 2019 until February 2020, Semenza and a person only identified as "Individual No. 3" in federal court papers corruptly solicited, demanded, accepted and agreed to accept money from "Individual No. 1," who appears to be Stocki, in exchange for official acts and promises of officials acts, according to federal paperwork. Individual No. 3 is a Lackawanna County resident who owned and operated a consulting firm headquartered in Old Forge.
Individual No. 3 solicited Individual No. 1 on Jan. 10, 2019, to pay cash in exchange for support and votes from Old Forge Borough council. During the meeting, Individual No. 3 called Semenza, who said, "Let me know what you need ... I'll do whatever you need," according to federal paperwork.
Semenza demanded payments from Individual No. 1, both directly and through an employee of the individual's, referring to them as "loans" to make them appear legitimate, according to prosecutors.
Individual No. 1 also gave thousands of dollars to Individual No. 3, who then shared a portion of it with Semenza, prosecutors said. In one instance, on Nov. 1, 2019, Individual No. 3 demanded thousands of dollars from Individual No. 1 and called Semenza, telling him, he would arrange to see him "with a little bit of green," according to the federal paperwork. The following day, the person obtained several thousand dollars from Individual No. 1. Before delivering the money to Semenza's home, Individual No. 3 called him, saying, "he's being honorable in what he said he's going to do ... you have to really perform now." Semenza replied, "okay," according to prosecutors.
On Nov. 4, 2019, Individual No. 3 emailed Semenza a proposed resolution for Old Forge's legal action against Individual No. 1, instructing him to give the resolution to the borough solicitor. Semenza presented the resolution to both the solicitor and borough council, prosecutors said.
Council Vice President Russell Rinaldi said he learned about Semenza's bribery charge Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Justice made its announcement. It came as a surprise, he said, explaining he has no memory of Semenza acting in Stocki's favor.
"I would have to say that the council as a majority was trying to get him to clean that property up" in accordance with Munley's decision, Rinaldi said.
Chris Goetz, a borough resident who lives near Stocki's property and a zoning hearing board member, frequently brought the scrapyard to council's attention.
"It's just another black eye for the borough, unfortunately, and obviously (Semenza) had no moral compass for the wellbeing of the borough residents and actually let down all the residents of Old Forge — not just the neighboring residents," he said.
He couldn't recall Semenza ever publicly supporting Stocki, but hearing of the plea agreement did not shock him.
"Nothing ever surprises me here in Old Forge," Goetz said.
Attempts to reach Old Forge Borough Solicitor William Rinaldi and Mayor Robert J. Legg were unsuccessful.
Semenza will appear before U.S. District Judge Malachy E. Mannion for an arraignment and plea hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Borough council will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Eagle McClure Hose Company, 375 Milwaukee Ave., to fill the remainder of Semenza's term, which ends Jan. 3, 2022.
The case was investigated by the Scranton FBI's Public Corruption Task Force and Internal Revenue Service. Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip J. Caraballo is prosecuting the case.