Five years after his release from prison, former Luzerne County commissioner and NFL lineman Greg Skrepenak is quietly living in downtown Wilkes-Barre trying to find his purpose.
He’s not in hiding.
Now 46, he socializes locally with family and a network of close friends, frequently attends local sporting events and is active with a few charitable causes and his church, St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic in Wilkes-Barre.
But there’s still a sense of awkwardness because he’s not sure what Wyoming Valley residents think of him.
He asked the media to give him privacy when he first got out and never had a chance to clear the air by speaking publicly as he started to rebuild his life. His last local public appearance in the limelight was in August 2010, when his two-year prison sentence was handed down amid a stormy corruption scandal that ensnared three county judges, several county officials and others.
Known to many Wyoming Valley residents simply as “Skrep,” he also is more subdued these days as he battles the medical scars of the athletic career that made him a local celebrity. He spends much of his time in occupational therapy and undergoing diagnostic testing.
“I am not bitter,” he kept stressing as he sipped bottled water in the loft apartment he purchased last year above the movie theater at Main and Northampton streets.
“I still feel my best contributions are yet to come.”
‘I will rise again’
His last time in the public spotlight followed a moment of shock after the sentencing.
Skrepenak had expected the federal judge to impose less prison time due to his charity work and status as a single father of three.
He pleaded guilty to corrupt receipt of a reward for official action for accepting a $5,000 reduction in closing costs when purchasing a townhouse in Jenkins Township in exchange for his vote as a commissioner to put the housing project in a program that used tax revenue to fund infrastructure.
His plea agreement said the offense involved more than one payment and that the total value of what he received was between $30,000 and $70,000.
While admitting guilt, Skrepenak maintained he had not accepted a bribe or received $30,000-plus. Instead, he had considered the payment of closing costs as a “gift” for his support of the tax break program, which required two commissioner votes to pass.
Clutching his bible, he paused on a bench inside the federal courthouse in Scranton immediately after the sentence, shaking his head and mourning the cry he had heard from his then-12-year-old daughter in the audience behind him when the judge ruled.
“Here I am, flat on my face. But I promise you this: With the grace of God, I will rise again, and I will be a member of this community again, and I will do everything I can to give service to those people who need it,” he said at the time.
He emerged from the building to face the media mob outside, asking for the public for forgiveness and vowing to use the experience to “reinvent the person I am.”
‘Humiliating … moments’
Skrepenak said he “lost everything” when he got in trouble.
He had to withdraw much of his NFL pension to pay legal costs and living expenses and relied on the charity of family and friends. The bank seized his Jenkins Township townhouse in a foreclosure action.
Worst of all, he was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution at Beckley in West Virginia instead of the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan about an hour away in Wayne County. His family could only afford to bring his children to visit him once during his incarceration there, he said.
The atmosphere at the Beckley facility was not “hard core” because it was at a prison camp, which has dormitory-style housing and limited or no perimeter fencing. However, he was behind bars at the beginning of his incarceration and had to be strip-searched. He also encountered some correctional officers that let their authoritative power go to their heads.
“It’s not fun. There are some humiliating and very degrading moments,” he said.
Although he wouldn’t repeat the experience, he believes it made him a better person and resulted in a “spiritual connection” he wouldn’t “trade for the world.”
In a strange sense, he found the scandal’s public airing of his dirty laundry — true or false, justified or not — cathartic.
All the rumors and hatred were unleashed, he said. At one point during the investigation, he had to verify he was still alive because he was inundated with calls from people who heard he had killed himself.
“Interestingly enough, going through what I went through, it’s very liberating,” he said. “It was all out there, so it’s not as if I could lose anything else.”
One of his most painful encounters, still fresh in his mind, occurred the night he resigned as county commissioner in December 2009, halfway through his second four-year term.
He didn’t want to miss his son’s basketball game at an area high school and slipped into the audience.
“I tried to be as incognito as possible, but at 6-foot-8, who’s going to do that?” said Skrepenak, who was often referred to as the “big guy” as a commissioner.
A television reporter approached him to ask questions off-camera, and Skrepenak still recalls a fellow audience member glaring at him and saying, “Oh great. Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot.”
He bit his tongue, wanting to reply, “What did I do to you? I did this to myself.” But the man’s words still haunt him.
“I did let people down, and it bothers me,” he said.
He’s certain others who gave or accepted money or questionable gifts then and prior escaped prosecution but said that doesn’t excuse his behavior.
Looking back, Skrepenak said his big mistake was getting caught up in “old-school politics” and not listening to his conscience.
“The people who stood to lose the most when I was in office had to try to reel me in and hook me so they didn’t lose their stake,” he said. “I’m disappointed I fell for it, that I let it happen to me.”
‘This is where my history is’
Skrepenak’s return to the area after prison was a given, although he hasn’t ruled out moving to a warmer climate when his children finish school and settle in their careers.
“This is where my family is, and this is where my history is, so to speak.”
He always wanted to live downtown and had supported the theater and loft project as a county commissioner, believing it would help spur revitalization.
The loft also is ideal because of his physical condition. The living space is on one floor, restaurants and stores are in walking distance and he doesn’t have to worry about shoveling snow or yardwork.
He expected physical problems from the repeated poundings he took playing football at GAR High School, the University of Michigan and for the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders and the Carolina Panthers in the NFL until 1997.
He’s going to need two shoulder replacements and can barely lift his arms straight ahead, let alone above his head. He also has issues with his knees, hips and an ankle.
“All that pain and arthritis that’s built up there, all the damage that’s been done over the years, that issue is one in itself,” he said.
More worrisome is the impact the repetitive hits and concussions have had on his brain.
It didn’t cross his mind until about six years ago, when he started experiencing intense headaches, skewed vision, increasing depression, inexplicable anger outbursts and mental fog.
All are among the symptoms associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease afflicting the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries. It can lead to dementia.
Skrepenak said the chances he has CTE are “very high,” and he’s trying to be proactive. He’s been to numerous facilities seeking treatments and is currently working with a team of doctors at a concussion center in Manhattan and is scheduled to be checked by another expert in Boston later this month. He is on NFL disability, and his three children are now in college.
“I want to live as fully as I possibly can, but don’t want to be a burden to loved ones. I have to prepare the best I can.”
Getting “beat up” in sports was expected during his generation, and nobody realized the mental health ramifications, he said. Athletes were ostracized if they didn’t go back in after a hit, and losing time on the field meant risking a coveted job and lifestyle in the NFL, he said, unsure if he’d pursue the sport he loves if he had the chance for a do-over.
‘Try to help where you can help’
Diet is a major component of his health quest.
A professed past meat lover, he switched entirely to a plant-based diet a year ago based on the recommendation of a diabetic friend who credits his food conversion on getting off all medication.
At one point, Skrepenak had been up to 535 pounds and developed problems with his heart.
“Finally, I said I had enough. It’s probably the best decision I’ve made in my life,” he said, noting he’s now down to 380 pounds.
His diet is mostly fruits, vegetables and whole grains. His pizzas are now whole wheat with vegetables on top and usually no cheese.
A voracious reader and documentary viewer, Skrepenak also keeps busy advocating for causes and sharing lessons learned.
He’s talked to players and a variety of other groups at the University of Michigan, including a lecture in a master’s degree course on ethics in public policy. A season ticket holder for the football team, the university also has included him in podcasts and radio interviews.
The university was his “little glimpse of heaven on earth,” and he worried he shamed the institution when he got in trouble.
“Ultimately it boils down to just trying to share my experiences in the hope it could help other people. That’s ultimately what I’ve done, I think, my entire adult life,” he said.
He also developed a faith-based initiative he plans to propose to his church and is trying to write a book, though he said he needs help because his condition often makes his thoughts disorganized.
Most of his volunteering is out of the area, but he said he’d help any cause that asked.
He’d like to return to coaching as a volunteer, saying he believes a few area coaches are more worried about winning than developing youth. However, he does not believe any schools would accept the offer due to his criminal record.
“So you sit back and try to help where you can help. That’s frustrating, but it’s still home,” he said.
‘Everyone likes to bash us’
Even more frustrating is the impression he did no good as a public official, Skrepenak said.
As commissioner, he spearheaded creation of the county’s drug court, which has been credited with saving money on prison costs and helping addicts focus on rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration.
Skrepenak also pointed out he worked with then-commissioner Todd Vonderheid to implement a personnel policy, eliminate a controversial employee severance package, establish dedicated funding for public libraries, launch a financial software tracking program and mandate for the first time public requests for proposals on professional service contracts.
He and Vonderheid also voted to close the county-owned Valley Crest Nursing Home because it was draining the county’s operating fund. The decision was particularly painful, he said, because his sister worked there. A private entity later ended up taking over the elderly care facility.
“Everyone likes to bash us, but no one says anything about the good things we did,” he said.
The pair has faced harsh public criticism for ballooning the county’s debt through borrowing, locking the county into the purchase of a downtown Hazleton southern annex at an excessive price and approving a $58 million juvenile detention center lease.
This lease was later voided after the state reduced reimbursement for the Pittston Township facility, arguing that the owners were receiving too much profit. The center was linked to corruption case charges against two former county judges and others.
Skrepenak said he and Vonderheid agreed to the lease solely because they were convinced it would drive down the county’s skyrocketing juvenile placement costs, and he said it did result in initial savings.
“But in hindsight, I wish I had nothing to do with that contract because it was nothing but trouble, even though it saved money,” he said.
Skrepenak said he felt “vindicated” by the recent announcement a lawsuit over the termination of former county veteran affairs director Richard Wren will cost the county more than $500,000.
Wren convinced the jury he was terminated by prior county commissioners Stephen A. Urban and Maryanne Petrilla because he was a “political affiliate” of Skrepenak’s.
Petrilla and Urban, who had clashed with Skrepenak while they served together, have said their decision to terminate was initiated and recommended by the county manager and solicitor at that time because Wren admitted to altering a $70 receipt he submitted for reimbursement.
Wren said he changed the receipt to show the date and expense because there was no doubt the $70 requested by the Disabled Veterans of America was accurate reimbursement for meals following the organization’s placement of flags at area cemeteries in 2009, court records show.
Former county controller Walter Griffith provided key evidence, saying Urban had told him there were people who “had to be fired” in the controller’s office due to their allegiance to Skrepenak. Urban has denied making this statement or targeting Skrepenak’s allies.
“It’s actually black-and-white proof to show the hatred certain people had for me that equates to a ton of money that Luzerne County is now responsible for,” Skrepenak said.
He also supports the recent hiring of his friend, Sam Hyder, as county deputy prison warden, saying he is the best man for that job.
But although he applauds the county council’s efforts to reduce spending and pay down debt, Skrepenak said more needs to be done to target drugs and gangs — problems he emphasized as a commissioner.
People used to leave this area to go get drugs, and now outsiders are coming here to buy them because it’s become a hub for dealers, he maintains.
“The major problems of this community are not being addressed,” he said. “It’s hard to watch and hard not to blame yourself and think what things would be if this didn’t happen to me.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.