The Times-Tribune

Probe limited to warden

Judge: Board obligated to look at claims against prison head

- BY TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER

STAFF WRITER The attorney appointed to investigat­e allegation­s of sexual abuse at the Lackawanna County Prison is only reviewing claims made against Warden Tim Betti, Lackawanna County Judge Vito Geroulo said.

The prison board voted last week to appoint Amil Minora “to investigat­e the most recent allegation­s made in the civil complaint that is filed in the federal district court.”

The motion gives the impression Mr. Minora will investigat­e allegation­s made against all employees, but that’s not the case, Judge Geroulo said.

“I expected it from minute one to be a very brief and very limited scope investigat­ion designed to see if there is any basis to support allegation­s against the warden,” said Judge Geroulo, president of the prison board.

Abuse claims

The probe stems from a federal lawsuit attorney Matthew Comerford filed in July on behalf of one woman who claims six guards sexually abused or harassed her and that other guards knew that, but failed to report it. Mr. Comerford filed an amended suit on Dec. 8 that names three additional plaintiffs and makes new allegation­s against Mr. Betti and two

“The DA will conduct an investigat­ion. He has many more tools to determine if wrongdoing in the past consists of conduct that constitute­s a crime. We can’t do anything that would interfere with that.” Judge Vito Geroulo On claims of abuse by guards

more guards, William Shanley and George McHale, who are not named in the original complaint.

The Times-Tribune does not identify victims of sexual assault.

Judge Geroulo said the prison is not conducting its own investigat­ion of the claims made against each guard because the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office is investigat­ing. District Attorney Shane Scanlon has declined to discuss the probe, but Mr. Comerford said several of his clients have been called before a county grand jury.

“The DA will conduct an investigat­ion. He has many more tools to determine if wrongdoing in the past consists of conduct that constitute­s a crime,” Judge Geroulo said. “We can’t do anything that would interfere with that.”

He said the prison is obligated to investigat­e the claims against Mr. Betti, however, because he is in a decision-making position.

Tore up grievances

The amended lawsuit claims Mr. Betti, when he was a deputy warden, tore up grievances one of Mr. Comerford’s clients filed alleging sexual abuse. In an interview last week, he denied the allegation­s.

Mr. Shanley is accused of repeatedly sexually abusing the same woman inside and outside the prison on unspecifie­d dates. Mr. McHale is accused of forcing another of Mr. Comerford’s clients to sexually stimulate him between Christmas Eve and New Years’s Eve in 2009 or 2010, according to the suit.

In a Dec. 12 letter to Mr. Minora, Mr. Shanley’s attorney, Gerard Karam, vehemently denied the allegation­s against his client. He notes Mr. Shanley and another of his clients, William Maguire, passed lie detector tests, which they paid for themselves. Attempts to reach Mr. McHale for comment were unsuccessf­ul.

Six of the employees named in the July suit were placed on paid administra­tive leave in June, after Mr. Comerford alerted the county to the claims in his suit. Mr. Shanley and Mr. McHale remain on the job, however, as does Mr. Betti.

Judge Geroulo said the decision whether to place Mr. Shanley and Mr. McHale on leave is up to Mr. Betti, but because he, too, is accused of wrongdoing, he cannot make that call.

Once Mr. Minora completes his investigat­ion, the board will decide whether to allow Mr. Betti to remain in the post or whether it must appoint an interim warden, he said. Whoever is in the job will then decide whether to place Mr. Shanley and Mr. McHale on leave.

The prison follows the guidelines of the federal Prison Rape Eliminatio­n Act. The act leaves the decision on whether to place a prison employee accused of abuse on leave up to local officials, who evaluate each accusation on a case-by-case basis.

No conflict

Judge Geroulo also addressed the issue of whether Mr. Minora has a conflict of interest based on his relationsh­ip with several people who were involved in the grand jury investigat­ion of Joseph Black, a former prison guard who pleaded guilty in 2015 to sexually abusing five inmates, including one of Mr. Comerford’s clients.

Mr. Minora, a former assistant district attorney, confirmed he initially presented some of the evidence to the grand jury in Mr. Black’s case before the probe was taken over by another prosecutor. Mr. Minora’s brother, Lackawanna County Judge Carmen Minora, was the supervisin­g judge in that matter.

In addition, Mr. Minora’s law partner, Tom Munley, previously represente­d John Shnipes, a former guard who is among the prison employees accused of sexual abuse.

Judge Geroulo said he does not believe those issues create any conflict given Mr. Minora is only looking at allegation­s against Mr. Betti.

“I consider Amil to be totally honest, honorable and a profession­al officer of the court. If he saw even a hint of a conflict of interest, he would say to me, ‘I can’t do this,’” Judge Geroulo said

Mr. Minora said he does not believe his connection­s to Mr. Black’s case preclude him from investigat­ing claims against Mr. Betti since they involve separate matters.

“There is only one paragraph in the entire complaint about Tim Betti. That is what I’m looking at,” he said.

Mr. Minora said he’s already started his investigat­ion. It’s not clear how long it will take.

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