Walter Griffith has reported to Luzerne County’s Penn Place Building in downtown Wilkes-Barre since 2010 — first to serve as county controller and the last three years to check in with his probation officer.
The 62-year-old Kingston Township resident will be off probation in a week as part of his 2013 guilty plea connected to wiretapping.
Reflecting Thursday, Griffith blames himself for failing to research the law before he hit the record button and fears his relinquishing of the controller seat as part of his plea agreement let down voters who had supported his outspoken and bold approach as an elected official.
“It was my own stupidity. I never should have done something like that without checking if I could. I was the self-professed watchdog,” he said.
Authorities said Griffith recorded three conversations without obtaining permission of those taped as required by state law — a 2010 phone call with county pension fund officials, a retirement board closed-door executive session that same year and a 2011 phone call with Y. Judd Shoval, a member of the nonprofit CityVest board that handled the failed Hotel Sterling renovation project in Wilkes-Barre.
In exchange for his guilty plea on three misdemeanor charges of obstructing the administration of justice, Griffith agreed to cancel his 2013 general election controller re-election race and not seek public office during the probationary period, which ends Sept. 23.
He estimated he spent about $30,000 in legal fees on his defense and negotiation of the plea agreement.
The monthly probation check-ins and requirement to report trips outside the state left Griffith feeling like a child who must answer to parents, he said.
“It’s not as bad as being incarcerated, but it’s not a celebration. You lose a portion of your freedom,” Griffith said.
Griffith said he clearly violated the law making the recordings but had contemplated contesting the charges on the argument he was unaware of the law and had no malicious intent.
However, he backed off after receiving estimates a challenge would cost him another $40,000 to $60,000 in legal fees with no guarantee a jury would deem him not guilty, he said.
Some citizens are still confused by the charges, mistakenly believing he installed tapping devices on private phones to record people, he said.
Griffith said he participated in all three conversations and said the telephone sessions were taped when the conversations were on speaker phone. He said his recordings were intended to serve as his own back-up in case a statement needed to be verified later for accuracy.
His conversation with Shoval was tied to the controller’s auditing of county funding for the Sterling project, and he served as retirement board secretary when the two pension fund matters were recorded, he said.
“I wasn’t recording to trip people up or try to use it for incriminating purposes,” said Griffith, who still faces a pending civil suit filed by Shoval, alleging privacy invasion.
Griffith maintains the government should provide more public education about the laws involving recording, particularly now that many carry cell phones with audio recording capabilities.
“I didn’t realize that it was an illegal act, and I’m sure many people don’t know it’s illegal. Had I known that, I would not have done it,” he said.
Griffith believes he can run for public office again, although it’s unclear if that interpretation would hold up under a challenge. The state constitution says people convicted of certain crimes are barred from holding public office, but a case law analysis would be necessary to determine if obstructing the administration of justice would fall into this category.
Chatter has surfaced that Griffith is putting out feelers about running for county controller next year, a seat currently held by Michelle Bednar.
Griffith, who has been concentrating on rebuilding his Nanticoke auto repair business, said he won’t rule out another candidacy because running for office is “in my blood.”
“I’d love to serve the people again, but at this point I’m not planning any runs. I may stay out of it and move on,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.