OPINION: Chris Kelly Opinion: An old arrest, a deleted record and our Right to Know

·4 min read

Jul. 24—The record in question documents an arrest on charges of disorderly conduct, simple assault and resisting arrest on Aug. 19, 1995.

The charges were apparently dropped, but the suspect was briefly a guest of Lackawanna County Prison, according to a related record.

The record in question should be archived in the prison's inmate records system. A copy should be immediately available for review. After more than 26 years, the record in question wouldn't be remotely newsworthy.

Unless it's not there.

I suspected as much when I filed a Right to Know Law request for the record on July 6. When Traci Harte, deputy chief of staff and county open records officer, claimed a 30-day extension to produce the record, my suspicion grew to near certainty.

On Wednesday, my suspicion was vindicated. The record was removed from the system without authorization and District Attorney Mark Powell opened a criminal investigation soon after I filed the Right to Know request.

Harte can't deliver what the county doesn't have. Powell can't ignore the destruction of public records. The person or people who purged the record from the system can't be allowed to get away with it.

Just ask Commissioner Debi Domenick, who wrote and sent the following email at 4:08 p.m. on July 13, five business days after Powell's investigation began. Recipients included Commissioners Jerry Notarianni and Chris Chermak, county Chief of Staff Brian Jeffers and county solicitor Frank Ruggiero.

"Please allow this email to confirm that I am formally requesting that the County launch an investigation into the possible violation and/or criminal conduct of a County employee or County employees, who has/have disseminated either orally and/or in paper form confidential and protected information from the County's OMS system.

"This information shall only be distributed to the public via a response to a Right to Know Request and after sensitive, protected information is redacted.

"This request for an investigation is based upon my conversation with Chris Kelly of the Scranton Times, wherein he stated that he was aware of very specific information which was contained in our OMS system. Notably, he was aware of this information prior to the filing of a Right to Know Request. Failure to investigate this policy violation and/or possible criminal act, as wall (sic) as the invasion of privacy of the individual who is the subject of the OMS search and information disseminated, implies complicity on behalf of County officials. This investigation should extend to all County departments who have access to both the old and newly updated systems."

Irony abounds. Domenick refused to file a Right to Know request when she forced county IT Director Mike Brown to help her snoop in confidential and protected information, including correspondence between Judge James Gibbons and prison Warden Tim Betti.

Suddenly, she's a stickler for process.

Domenick requested an investigation that was already underway to out and potentially prosecute any county employee who did exactly what she did — abuse access to confidential and protected information.

I got Domenick's email through a Right to Know request. The process works.

The record in question was once in the OMS (offender management system). Ruggiero said the OMS "keeps track of essentially all of the inmates that at some point touched the prison" and "outlines who was in the prison at any given time."

Like Aug. 19, 1995.

Domenick refuses to speak with any Sunday Times reporter. On Wednesday, Ruggiero explained the commissioner's reasoning for requesting an investigation that was already underway.

"From her standpoint, the reason she requested the investigation is because she is hearing rumors that she may have deleted or gotten rid of various records," he said.

Sunday Times reporters have heard such rumors, too. Responsible journalists don't publish rumors. We deal in facts.

The record in question contains facts about an arrest made more than 26 years ago, on charges that were apparently dropped. It was not remotely newsworthy until it went missing.

Now, the questions the district attorney and this newspaper are determined to answer are who deleted it, and why.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, needs a vacation. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly. Contact the writer: kellysworld@timesshamrock.com; @cjkink on Twitter; Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook.