Scranton police sergeant will plead guilty in federal investigation of extra-duty pay

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Aug. 27—A suspended Scranton police sergeant put on leave amid a federal investigation of extra-duty pay agreed to plead guilty to a felony, admitting he took thousands of dollars for work he never did.

Jeffrey Vaughn, 50, was charged in a criminal investigation with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds. According to a plea agreement, the loss attributable to his conduct is greater than $6,500 but less than $15,000.

Vaughn was one of three officers placed on leave earlier this year while federal investigators probed police patrols of publicly funded lower-income housing complexes in the city.

The two other officers were Patrolman Paul Helring and Detective Sgt. David Mitchell. Neither has been charged with a crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment, citing the bureau's policy to neither confirm nor deny investigations. The U.S. attorney's office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania declined to comment beyond a statement issued Friday announcing the charge against Vaughn.

"I've heard all the rumors ... I was hoping it wasn't true," city council Vice President Mark McAndrew said. "Now that it's true, corrective action needs to happen now at the city level."

McAndrew, the chair of the city's public safety committee, said the charge serves as "another example of the city not having procedures and policies in place" to provide oversight. "Someone should be watching it," he said.

Scranton Mayor Paige Gebhardt Cognetti said in an email Vaughn remains on paid administrative leave pending due process proceedings. Mitchell also is on paid leave and Helring was approved for his pension earlier this month by the pension board, she said.

Cognetti said Police Chief Thomas Carroll made operational policy changes earlier this year, before the federal investigation began, to increase transparency and accountability. That included reassigning management responsibilities and strengthening internal safeguards. Since the criminal information is filed, she said the city will move forward with its internal review and "ensure that the employees responsible are held accountable."

Cognetti said her administration remains "extremely focused on rooting out misconduct within city government" and assisted external law enforcement with this investigation.

"The alleged conduct at hand has no place in our government and will not be tolerated," she said in a statement.

Vaughn joined the force Dec. 11, 2000, and earned a $79,337.44 base salary last year. Mitchell started at the department March 11, 1999, and earned a $82,511.52 base salary last year. Helring, who was union president, joined March 18, 1999, and earned a $70,530.72 base salary last year.

Until earlier this year, Helring coordinated the police department's extra-duty program. City records received in a Right to Know Law request show he approved nearly all extra-duty assignments until early April.

The extra-duty program allows various groups to request police to patrol and then reimburse the city for their work. Extra patrols regularly worked around Scranton Housing Authority complexes. The officers were paid, at least in part, with federal funds provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, federal prosecutors said.

According to a memorandum of agreement between the housing authority and the police department provided through a Right to Know Law request, the police assign two officers to work four-hour shifts three days a week from the evening until the early morning. The purpose is "to provide safe, decent and sanitary" living environments for authority residents.

Karl Lynott, deputy executive director of the housing authority, declined to comment on the development because it is an ongoing investigation.

"We don't want to interfere with anything that is ongoing," he said.

Extra-duty pay is in addition to an officer's base salary.

City records show Vaughn made $16,409.48 in extra-duty pay last year, the third highest in the department. The two officers who made more extra-duty dollars were Helring, who earned $22,933.02, and Mitchell, who made $18,770.01. Together, the three made more than a fifth — 22.7% — of the $254,995.04 extra-duty money paid to 62 officers last year.

According to the criminal information charging Vaughn, he accepted money for work he did not perform at four complexes — Midtown Apartments, Village Park Apartments, Hilltop Manor and Valley View Terrace — between July 31, 2021, and April 22.

Between those dates, according to city records, Vaughn worked 77 extra duty shifts for a total of 328 hours.

According to federal investigators, he was paid $34.42 for each hour of extra duty he claimed he worked.

There was no clear way to tell which shifts were legitimate and which were considered suspect by the FBI. Authorities did not detail the case's evidence in court documents filed this week.

Most of the extra patrol Vaughn claimed he worked centered around Hilltop Manor and Valley View Terrace, according to city records. Between those nearly nine months, 54 extra-duty shifts were listed there, most frequently between 8 p.m. and midnight.

During the time-frame cited by the federal investigation, more than 49,000 emergency calls were placed in the city of Scranton, according to Lackawanna County records received in a Right to Know Law request.

Of those, The Times-Tribune could identify 14 that were both at the housing complexes Vaughn was scheduled to patrol and during the time frames he was supposed to be there.

Those include a domestic dispute in December 2021 on South Webster Avenue that turned out to be a verbal dispute and all involved had left by the time police arrived, Capt. Dennis Lukasewicz said after checking the report. Another reported assault on Belvedere Drive in November involved no injuries and no arrests. Others identified by the newspaper seemed to be more minor.

Attempts to reach Vaughn, Mitchell and Helring, as well as their attorneys, were unsuccessful Friday.

Terrie Morgan-Besecker and Jeff Horvath, staff writers, contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: jkohut@timesshamrock.com, 570-348-9100, x5187; @jkohutTT on Twitter.