Corruption runs rampant in Pa. coal country

Prosecutors charged Greg Skrepenak with accepting gifts from a developer while he was county commissioner. Prosecutors charged Greg Skrepenak with accepting gifts from a developer while he was county commissioner. (Mark Moran/ The Citizen’S Voice)
By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / January 25, 2010

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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - After a six-year run in the National Football League, Greg Skrepenak came home to Pennsylvania and parlayed his name recognition and hometown popularity into a seat on the Luzerne County Board of Commissioners.

He had campaigned as a reformer. It turns out he was anything but: Prosecutors charged him last month with accepting $5,000 in gifts from a developer seeking public financing of a condominium project. He is scheduled to plead guilty tomorrow.

Another day, another fallen politician in the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, where FBI agents and federal prosecutors have spent the past year rooting out government corruption in a region known for its pay-to-play politics, suspicion of outsiders and resistance to political change.

Twenty-three people in Luzerne County - including a school superintendent, three county judges, four courthouse officials, and five school board members - have been charged in unrelated schemes.

In the most egregious abuse of the public’s trust, two judges are charged with taking $2.8 million in kickbacks to place youth offenders in for-profit detention facilities - a scandal known as “kids for cash.’’ While thousands of juvenile convictions have been dismissed by the state Supreme Court, youth advocates say the lives of countless children and their families were ruined.

The ongoing federal corruption probe has sent tremors through an insular political culture where graft, patronage, and nepotism have been accepted practice since the golden age of anthracite coal a century ago - when waves of European immigrants arrived in this mountainous region 100 miles north of Philadelphia to work in mines, breweries, and railroads. Their descendants still live in the tiny patch towns and tightly packed houses built by long-defunct coal companies.

Most of the charges filed over the past year involve public officials accepting cash or gifts in exchange for helping contractors win government work or some other benefit. A few officials are charged with theft of taxpayer dollars. The FBI is also looking into allegations that candidates for public school teaching positions paid bribes to school board members to land jobs.

“Things have been like this for so long that I don’t think many people see a lot of wrong in what they’ve done,’’ said Skrepenak, 39, a former offensive lineman who played for the Oakland Raiders and Carolina Panthers in the 1990s.

“I believe any elected official of the last five years is at risk’’ of prosecution, he added. “I don’t think many of them truly know what they can and cannot do.’’

Few in the coal region are surprised. Machine-style politics has flourished here for decades; government jobs and other taxpayer-funded goodies are often doled out to the politically connected, not just in Luzerne County but throughout the area. Federal prosecutors have set their sights on the courthouse in neighboring Lackawanna County, and indictments are widely expected.