A last-minute email from former Luzerne County controller Walter Griffith brought a temporary halt to Richard Wren’s federal trial, which had been scheduled to begin Monday in Scranton.
Wren, 57, sued the county and former county commissioners Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban in 2011, maintaining they fired him as county veteran affairs director six years ago because he was a “political affiliate” of former county commissioner Greg Skrepenak. Petrilla and Urban were Skrepenak’s “political adversaries,” Wren said.
Petrilla and Urban said the county manager and solicitor recommended Wren’s termination in 2009 because Wren admitted to altering a $70 receipt he submitted for reimbursement.
Griffith sent Wren’s attorney, Kimberly D. Borland, an email Feb. 2 informing him that Urban had advised Griffith in 2009 to terminate controller’s office employees based on their political affiliation with Skrepenak.
Borland filed a brief saying he wants to put Griffith on the stand to present that information to the court.
“This testimony goes to the heart of the case as to whether the plaintiff was terminated by the defendant Urban for the same thing,” Borland wrote, stressing the county would have the right to cross examine Griffith.
The dilemma: The county’s attorneys — John G. Dean and Mark W. Bufalino, of Elliott Greenleaf & Dean in Wilkes-Barre — previously represented Griffith when he was charged with wiretapping and was sued in civil court for allegedly recording a conversation with Judd Shoval.
Dean and Bufalino said cross examining Griffith, a former client, would be a conflict of interest and asked the federal judge for a continuance so the county can obtain other legal representation.
U.S. Judge Malachy E. Mannion in Scranton agreed to continue the trial, and a new date has not been set, his staffer said.
According to a brief filed Sunday by Borland and Borland LLP, the firm sent the unsolicited email from Griffith to the defense counsel on Feb. 4.
Griffith previously had supplied sworn deposition testimony as part of the suit, but had not been asked if Urban had ever spoken to him about terminating other individuals for a political affiliation with Skrepenak.
In the email, Griffith told Borland he was reviewing the transcript from his deposition and was “remiss in stating something that may prove very beneficial to your client.”
Griffith said he was “confronted” by Urban after Griffith won the county controller post in 2009 and told there were a few people who “had to be fired” in the controller’s office due to their allegiance to Skrepenak. He said Urban advised him to fire everyone except Peggy Baloga if he wanted the office to run properly.
Griffith said he did not listen to Urban and was informed by Urban several times that then-employee Patricia Llewellyn should be fired and “can’t be trusted” because she was a “Skrep holdover.”
“I inform you of this information because I feel that there definitely was a ‘coalition’ between Urban and Petrilla to terminate certain employees due to their affiliation with the Skrep,” Griffith wrote.
According to a brief also filed Sunday by Dean and Bufalino, no conflict existed before the email because Griffith’s prior testimony was “previously favorable to defendants and gave no rise for the need to cross-examine, impeach his credibility or attack him in any form.”
Griffith was controller from 2010 until he stepped down in August 2013 as part of a plea agreement for illegally recording a retirement board executive session, a phone call with county pension fund officials and attorneys and a phone call with Shoval, who was a member of the nonprofit CityVest board that owned the former Hotel Sterling property in Wilkes-Barre.
Skrepenak resigned as commissioner in 2009 and served a nearly two-year prison sentence on his guilty plea to accepting a $5,000 kickback as a reward for supporting a real estate developer’s entry into a program to delay payment of taxes on a project.
Llewellyn, who previously worked as Skrepenak’s executive assistant, was let go in January 2014 by current county Controller Michelle Bednar as part of a restructuring of the controller’s office.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.