WILKES-BARRE — A holdup in the transfer of the local drug task force from state control to county control was the fault of the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office because of paperwork it failed to provide for over a year, the state Office of Attorney General alleged Wednesday.
The county district attorney’s office had recently been in the dark regarding when the long-heralded handoff would occur, despite attempts to contact the Office of Attorney General for a timetable, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said.
“It’s been very challenging,” she told the Times Leader opinion board last week. “I hope this will be resolved sometime soon.”
After reading the second-term district attorney’s comments in a Times Leader editorial published last week, the state attorney general’s office sought to “set the record straight,” said spokesman Chuck Ardo.
Ardo told the Times Leader Wednesday that Salavantis’ claims were concerning because “it seemed to lay blame on our office when we were actually blameless in the situation.”
The state attorney general’s office couldn’t begin to address the transfer until paperwork was received from Salavantis’s office, which was received in January after more than a year and a half, Ardo explained.
“The DA complained about the length of time it had taken to respond when the fact is that we didn’t get the required paperwork until the holidays, and then the office got to do its due diligence,” he said.
Salavantis on Wednesday declined to point the finger at either side, stating better communication between the two offices could likely have avoided the delay.
“I don’t lay blame on anyone,” Salavantis said. “Ultimately, what we want is the attorney general’s office to say to us, ‘This is what we need to do to proceed.’ That’s it. We want communication, which has been lacking to this point.”
Salavantis, a Republican, touted the task force transfer on the campaign trail last year as she chased a bid for a second term as district attorney. Salavantis, 33, secured 63 percent of the vote to defeat Democratic challenger Vito DeLuca and win re-election.
Salavantis said she made a request to assume control of the task force about two years ago.
Once control is handed off, money seized in civil forfeitures will no longer be split 50-50 with the state OAG and will increase the county’s ability to make purchases for law enforcement and fund overtime while keeping drug dealers off the street, she said.
“This has become a very difficult situation,” Salavantis said, “because our main goal is to make sure our public is safe and to continue battling the drug war, but right now that’s hindering those investigations and the work that should be done.”
First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said that up until two weeks ago, he had received no contact or correspondence since sending the paperwork the OAG sought on Jan. 25.
“We’ve been the ones constantly chasing after it and not getting any answers,” Sanguedolce said Wednesday.
The document, he explained, was a memorandum of understanding that needed to be signed off on by 46 police departments in the county. Collecting the signatures on the paperwork was a daunting task, but the office managed to collect the signatures needed in about four months, he added.
Sanguedolce said he believed the OAG’s receipt of the paperwork would turn over control of the task force within approximately 60 days.
Ardo confirmed the document was received and the OAG was reviewing it, but going through the paperwork is a time consuming task in of itself, Ardo said. The spokesman added there may have been an expectation that their review would be completed in 60 days, but that time period “is nowhere written in stone.”
“They say there isn’t a time frame set in stone, but right now they have taken money out of jurisdictions that help them in fighting drug dealers and criminals on our streets,” Salavantis said. “That’s concerning to me.”
Sanguedolce said the offices’ combined goal is to keep drug dealers off the streets and keep funding in place so officers can do their job. The perception that both sides aren’t fighting the same war, he said, is bad for the morale of police officers and bad for the war against drugs.
“What we don’t want is these officers to have some perception that we’ve been sitting on our hands,” he said.
Ardo acknowledged the paperwork received by the OAG was likely among the final pieces of the puzzle.
“Sounds to me like it is,” Ardo said. “Sounds like everybody is at least on the same page now.”
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL.