Controversy follows former judge Pozonsky from Pa. to Alaska
December 30, 2012 5:00 AM
By Moriah Balingit Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In July, after abruptly quitting his job as a Common Pleas Court judge, 57-year-old Paul Pozonsky packed up his office on the bottom floor of the Washington County Courthouse and moved 4,000 miles to Alaska to join his wife Sara, a politically connected native of the state.
With his departure, Mr. Pozonsky left behind a storied, 14-year judicial career, a $169,541 salary and lingering questions about his tenure after he unilaterally ordered evidence destroyed in 17 mostly drug-related cases without consulting the district attorney's office.
"In this situation, what was odd about it was that the judge did it on his own volition," said District Attorney Gene Vittone, who objected to the order, warning the judge it could raise due process problems because one of the cases was still eligible for appeal. "It was unusual."
The former judge is now the target of a grand jury investigation by the state attorney general's office, though the nature of the inquiry is not known.
Neither this, nor the turmoil that preceded his resignation, prevented him from being hired as a workers' compensation hearing officer for the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, a judge-like position that paid around $80,000 a year. But three weeks ago, when his hiring came under scrutiny, he resigned that position after less than two months on the job. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has ordered an internal investigation into how Mr. Pozonsky got the job.
Mr. Pozonsky and his wife did not return calls or emails. Robert Del Greco, the attorney for the former judge, refused to answer questions, including why he was representing him. Greg Cashen, assistant commissioner at the Alaska Labor Department, also did not return emails inquiring about the reasons behind Mr. Pozonsky's resignation.
But what is known about Mr. Pozonsky's history is troubling to Alaska state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who has publicly questioned how he was hired over other qualified applicants.
On May 31, about a month after then-Judge Pozonsky ordered the destruction of evidence, President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca without explanation stripped him of all criminal cases and shut down the Drug Treatment Court, which he founded in 2005.
Mr. Wielechowski said it wasn't just Mr. Pozonsky's past that has raised eyebrows. As the story of his hiring unfolded in Alaska's newspapers, he heard from constituents frustrated that a man from Pennsylvania got the job when the state is supposed to be making a concerted effort to hire its own.
"Why are we going 4,000 miles away for this judge?" he asked.
A judge in the news
Paul Pozonsky was elected to the Washington County Court of Common Pleas in 1997 after serving several terms as a district judge in McDonald. Not long into his tenure, his ex-wife filed a restraining order against him.
In June 1999, Mary Duffy-Pozonsky told a judge that he had picked her up and thrown her against an SUV in her garage. She received a one-year protection-from-abuse order.
On the bench, he gained a reputation for eccentric behavior, famously playing a recording of a country music song, John Michael Montgomery's "The Little Girl," as he ordered a death sentence for Michelle Tharp in November 2000. Tharp was convicted of starving her 7-year-old daughter to death.
In another incident around the same time, Mr. Pozonsky was the subject of an ethics investigation by the state Judicial Conduct Board. It grew out of an entanglement with Sara Pozonsky's ex-husband, Mark Pearson, with whom she had children. After Mr. Pearson brought a friend to videotape the children being dropped off at the Pozonsky residence in spring 2000, the judge filed harassment charges against Mr. Pearson. While Mr. Pozonsky withdrew the charges in October, Mr. Pearson made a complaint to the conduct board in November, claiming that then-Judge Pozonsky used his influence when he filed the charges, sending the paperwork to a local magistrate who was a friend of the judge and drafting letters related to the complaint on his stationery.
The Judicial Conduct Board dismissed Mr. Pearson's complaint in early 2001.
In 2005, Mr. Pozonsky started the treatment court, which diverted certain people charged with drug-related offenses from jail to rehabilitation. In the following years, the judge rose to handle many high-profile cases, noting in his resignation letter that he oversaw between 60 and 70 percent of the criminal cases during his tenure.
In August 2011, then-Judge Pozonsky sealed a settlement between the Hallowich family and gas drillers in Washington County. The Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter have been seeking access to its details. This month, a Washington County judge granted a motion for an expedited hearing on whether to unseal the settlement, following an order from the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The case of the evidence
Though notable for its rapid rise, Paul Pozonsky's judicial career was not without controversy.
In criminal cases, physical evidence is handled with kid gloves. Because mishandled evidence can lead to the swift dismissal of a case, it's meticulously categorized, labeled and inventoried. Its movement from place to place is carefully tracked.
In 2010, it became clear that wasn't happening at the California Borough police department, a report by the district attorney's office concluded. It called the record keeping at the department, where the chief was demoted without explanation before the report's release, "sloppy and inaccurate."
But the bad bookkeeping extended all the way to Mr. Pozonsky's courtroom, where the report said records were so incomplete that it was impossible to conduct an audit.
Steven Toprani served as the district attorney for Washington County from January 2008 to January 2012. In a recent interview, Mr. Toprani, now a private defense attorney, said his investigators found discrepancies between what inventories said the evidence lockers should contain and what was actually there. And when they checked Mr. Pozonsky's papers -- for destruction orders, for example -- the records didn't "readily explain" why items were missing.
"When we tried to establish a chain of evidence, tried to find records of what should be preserved and what should be destroyed ... we discovered this irregularity," Mr. Toprani said, explaining that what investigators found did not "line up" with what inventories indicated should be there. "They didn't necessarily line up items that we either found or either expected to find."
Mr. Toprani said some of that evidence would have passed through Mr. Pozonsky's chambers at one point or another.
Typically, physical evidence is not taken to the courthouse until a case goes to trial, when it is put in the custody of the court stenographer and remains in a vault in the judge's chambers.
But Mr. Toprani said there were a few occasions when Mr. Pozonsky requested drug evidence be brought to his courtroom while he heard pretrial motions, a move the former district attorney considered unnecessary.
"It is atypical for the court to request that drug evidence be brought in prior to any trial phase," he said. "There's really no reason to bring the drugs in."
Investigators never determined how the drugs and other evidence -- which included cash -- disappeared, and no one was ever charged.
On May 1 of this year, Mr. Pozonsky raised eyebrows when he took the abnormal step of ordering evidence in 17 criminal cases destroyed "as the prosecution of the cases in the above entitled actions have been concluded and the cases are now closed," according to the order.
Nearly all of those cases were drug related. Other cases included an attempted homicide case, a simple assault and a robbery. According to court filings, evidence collected in those cases included guns, clothing, videotapes and cash -- at least $2,000 seized from suspected drug dealers. There were also drugs -- cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana and narcotic painkillers -- and drug paraphernalia. It's unclear where that evidence was when he ordered its destruction.
Current District Attorney Gene Vittone said he was stunned by the order. Judges rarely -- if ever -- decide unilaterally to destroy evidence, according to Mr. Vittone. In an objection filed on May 9, Mr. Vittone outlined his concerns, writing that, among other things, the evidence ordered for destruction included currency. One case whose evidence was slated for destruction was also still eligible for appeal.
"The commonwealth also has an obligation to ensure that any contraband is properly destroyed in accordance with the regulations of the various law enforcement agencies," his motion read. "A blanket destruction Order as issued by the Court would permit the undocumented destruction of such evidence outside the knowledge of responsible agency and without any documentation."
By the time Mr. Pozonsky heard Mr. Vittone's arguments, he told the district attorney that much of the evidence had already been destroyed. "I think his words were, 'I've already taken care of that,' " he said.
Two days prior to Mr. Vittone's objection, the judge had issued a certification declaring that all of the evidence had been destroyed on May 3 pursuant to the order.
Still, Mr. Pozonsky reversed the destruction order "with respect to any personal property that is not contraband and that remains in the possession of the police departments."
To this day, "I don't know what was destroyed and what wasn't," Mr. Vittone said.
That move also deviated from normal procedure. Mr. Vittone said motions for evidence destruction usually originate with the district attorney's office. After a judge issues an order, a police officer destroys the evidence with another officer serving as witness and then files an affidavit. In 15 of the case files, no affidavits of destruction were found.
Two of the cases listed in the order originated in the City of Washington. Chief Robert Lemons said his department never destroyed any evidence pursuant to the order because he never received it. When asked about one of the cases -- in which a woman turned 21 grams of cocaine over to officers -- he said he did not know if the evidence was in his department's custody.
"I've never seen that order," he said.
Two Pennsylvania State Police cases were also listed in the order. State police spokeswoman Maria Finn said she could not comment on what happened to that evidence because "there is an active criminal investigation."
On to Alaska
At the end of May, county President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca, without explanation, stripped Mr. Pozonsky of all criminal cases and suspended the treatment court. A month later, on June 30, he announced his resignation.
"As difficult as it may be to retire and step aside, the decision has come after many months of discussion with my wife and children and believe it serves our overall best interest," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett.
Sometime thereafter, Mr. Pozonsky moved to Alaska, where his wife, Sara, already spent part of the year. She is now working on a documentary about the fishing industry called "A Fishy Tale," according to the film's website. He opted to take a portion of his retirement in a lump sum, collecting $200,851, along with his first $7,956 monthly payment on Aug. 10. He continues to collect his retirement in Alaska.
Mrs. Pozonsky, born Sara Crapuchettes, is the daughter of the late Charles Crapuchettes, a prominent commercial fisherman who started a number of Christian schools in Alaska. According to a 2006 profile in Pittsburgh Quarterly, she had an upstart career in public service, serving as a council member in Solodtna and on the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct. She met Mr. Pozonsky at a judicial conference in Texas and moved to Washington County to be with him, taking her children from a previous marriage with her.
She earned a bachelor's degree in business at Waynesburg University here, according to her LinkedIn profile.
According to the magazine profile, she started Wild Alaskan Salmon after a phone conversation with Loren Leman, then Alaska's lieutenant governor, who moonlighted as a commercial fisherman. Mr. Leman told her he was trying to move his product in the Lower 48, so the seafood company was born. She runs it with her sister-in-law, Trish Kopp.
Mrs. Pozonsky gained a reputation for delivering some of the best and freshest fish around and was a favorite among the Wholey family and restaurateurs. She ran the business out of the couple's Washington County home, spending part of the year in Alaska.
Like her family, Mrs. Pozonsky is deeply religious. This year, she released a Christian-themed folk and country music album titled "Talk About Love." Her husband pairs with her on a country track titled "Drive."
"Keep me moving forward, never in reverse," he sings to a cheerful tune. "Living in the past, Lord, ain't nothing but a curse."
Mrs. Pozonsky gave around $7,800 to his re-election campaign in 2007, according to a campaign finance report.
After Mr. Pozonsky moved to Alaska to join her, he applied for a job as a workers' compensation hearing officer, where he would make about $80,000 a year.
Mr. Wielechowski, a former chief adjudicator for the Labor Department who served on hiring committees, said he never would have hired a candidate who had left his previous job under such questionable circumstances.
But the senator speculated that Mr. Pozonsky's political connections may have played a role. His wife has a history of going to bat for family members, calling on her father's friends in office to help her.
Mrs. Pozonsky's brother, Charles Kopp, was a part of the Troopergate scandal involving then-Gov. Sarah Palin, a story that gained national traction when she was tapped as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008.
An investigation by the state legislature showed the governor fired State Police Commissioner Walter Monegan because he refused to fire a state trooper involved in a messy divorce with Ms. Palin's sister. She elevated Mr. Kopp, then the police chief of Kenai, a town of fewer than 8,000 residents, to the position. Mr. Kopp later resigned after a report of a sexual harassment complaint against him surfaced.
Mrs. Pozonsky wrote the governor following his resignation, begging her to restore him to the state's top police position, according to an email obtained by media through a Freedom of Information Act request and hosted on the website of the investigative research company Crivella West.
"You've had several prominent Alaskans call you in defense of Chuck," she wrote in the email, ticking off the name of a mayor and two state senators, "but yet your [sic] chose to ignore their advice."
Though Mr. Kopp was not rehired as the state police commissioner, the family maintains its political cachet. He now serves as the chief of staff for Republican state Sen. Fred Dyson, a friend of their late father. His wife, Trish Kopp, co-owns Wild Alaskan Salmon with Mrs. Pozonsky.
Mr. Dyson said he was unaware that Mr. Pozonsky, a man he said he met only twice, was applying for the position. He said Mr. Kopp also did not make any calls on behalf of his brother-in-law.
But the senator said Mr. Kopp told him that Mr. Pozonsky shared newspaper stories about the grand jury investigation during his interview with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "They said, 'OK, in our mind you're innocent until proven guilty,' " he said.
So did political connections weigh on the department's decision to hire Mr. Pozonsky?
"That's really the question," Mr. Wielechowski said. "I hope we can get down to the bottom of it and I just don't think we have enough information at this point."
But the department said the hire was made by Janel Wright, chief of Workers' Compensation Adjudication, a decision that was cleared by human resources.
"Commissioners and the Governor usually play no role in making appointments to classified positions," Greg Cashen, assistant commissioner for the department, said in an email. "The Chief did not seek -- and was not required to seek -- approval of this appointment from a higher level."
Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Mr. Parnell, said he learned about Mr. Pozonsky's hiring and his background from a column published Dec. 2 in the Anchorage Daily News. Shortly thereafter, he spoke to Commissioner Dianne Blumer, who heads the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and asked her to conduct an internal review of hiring practices.
"He was mostly concerned [of] the possibility that the hiring process was flawed and he asked the labor commissioner to look into it," she said. "He was concerned that Mr. Pozonsky wasn't properly vetted."
Mr. Wielechowski said he hopes the department takes a different tack to fill the position Mr. Pozonsky resigned on Dec. 6.
The state's large industrial workforce sees about 30,000 work-related injuries a year, which means a workers' compensation judge plays a critical role in making sure injured workers get what they're due, he said.
"These are people's lives that are at stake," he said. "I hope to continue to do the process the way it's been done and find qualified Alaskans, preferably, and keep the politics out of it."