Former Scranton school administrator cleared of child endangerment charges sues district, investigators

Oct. 1—A former Scranton School District administrator cleared of charges he exposed children to environmental hazards claims other administrators conspired with investigators to falsely arrest him to deflect blame from themselves.

In a federal lawsuit, former Chief Operating Officer Jeff Brazil alleges prosecutors withheld information that proved he committed no crime so they could pursue charges and score political points for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now the Democratic nominee for governor in the November general election.

They did so with the help of Superintendent Melissa McTiernan and former administrator Paul Dougherty, whose feigned ignorance of asbestos and elevated lead levels in water at multiple schools helped convince a grand jury to recommend charges against Brazil, former maintenance supervisor Joseph Slack and former Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., the suit says.

"Plaintiff's arrest was clearly orchestrated ... as a 'dog and pony' show designed for maximum publicity," Brazil's attorney, Joseph Guzzardo, of Philadelphia, says in the suit. "They destroyed a man's life for political gain."

The lawsuit comes several days after Slack, who also was cleared of all charges, filed a federal lawsuit against the state Office of Attorney General and several other defendants.

Brazil, Slack and Kirijan were charged on Sept. 30, 2020, with endangering children and the public for allegedly failing to take action to address the environmental issues. All charges against Brazil and Slack were dropped in June 2021. Kirijan was admitted into the county's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program on a single misdemeanor count of recklessly endangering another person.

Brazil's suit seeks damages for false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, abuse of process and conspiracy against McTiernan, Dougherty, the Scranton School Board, Special Agent Robert McHugh with the Office of Attorney General and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Michael Mulvey. It does not name Shapiro, his office or the state police as defendants.

John Freund, solicitor for the school board, said the claims against it, McTiernan and Dougherty "have absolutely no factual basis or legal validity." He noted the school district, McTiernan and Dougherty were not the prosecuting agency.

Jacklin Rhoads, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, said it stands behind the investigation.

"Our task is to pursue justice, and when new information came to light, we dismissed charges against Mr. Brazil," she said. "We will defend any allegations of wrongdoing to the fullest extent."

Attempts to reach Dougherty, now the superintendent in the Tunkhannock School District, were unsuccessful.

Brazil's suit mirrors allegations Slack made that he was charged despite clear evidence both men took steps to ensure students and the public were not exposed to environmental hazards.

According to the suit, Brazil learned of the elevated lead levels in January 2019, while he was on leave for a work-related injury. He immediately emailed Slack and directed him to disable the affected water fountains and sinks and Slack complied, placing signs on them. Investigators pressured Slack to state otherwise, but he refused, the suit says.

Despite that evidence, prosecutors told a grand jury that Brazil "took no action" to remediate the contaminated water sources.

The suit says prosecutors also presented false and misleading information regarding asbestos, telling grand jurors Brazil failed to address the issue. Evidence shows he hired a contractor to conduct air quality tests in 2016 and 2019. All air quality reports, including those in 2019, revealed no health threat.

The suit also places blame on McTiernan, who suceeded Kirijan as superintendent in August 2019, and Dougherty, who replaced Brazil after he resigned in March 2019.

According to the suit, McTiernan and Dougherty said in January 2020, that they were never notified of the environmental issues. That's a lie, the suit says. It cites an Aug. 22, 2019, email Candis Finan, the district's chief recovery officer, sent the board that advises them asbestos must be removed from a room at one school, but air quality tests revealed there was no health risk.

The next week, Dougherty and McTiernan allowed students back in all district schools despite possessing "the same air quality and water tests for which defendants later were criminally prosecuted," the suit says.

Prosecutors used the "fact" that McTiernan and Dougherty took immediate action to remediate the hazards in January 2020, to support the charges against Brazil and the other defendants, who were paraded in front of the news media in handcuffs and shackles, the suit says.

"Defendants created a false narrative and put on the above charade solely to generate a desired media story and, in Dougherty/McTiernan's case, solely to shift blame to plaintiff and away from themselves and the school board," the suit says.

The suit seeks compensatory damages for lost income and damage to Brazil's reputation, as well as punitive damages.

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