SCI Pittsburgh prison guard terminated after assisting investigation

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Vincent Schaffer never fancied himself a criminal investigator, and when an internal affairs agent pressed him into service in the probe of the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh's F Block, he balked.

Threats of discipline should he refuse, though, convinced the 45-year-old prison lieutenant that he had no choice. He became the conduit between investigators and a key inmate witness without whose help the abuse charges pending against four prison officers might not have been possible.

His involvement, though, set in motion a chain of events that resulted in his apparent termination from the Department of Corrections, for which he worked for 18 years. The department confirmed Monday that Mr. Schaffer is no longer an employee, declining to comment further because it does not detail personnel matters.

Now on unemployment and seeking less lucrative work as a parole agent, Mr. Schaffer said the turn of events has left him bitter.

"I had a lot of pride in my job, and I gave the department 100 percent every day," he said Friday. "To believe that I was put in this position, and to even try to comprehend that the department and the commonwealth have flat-out turned their backs -- I don't even know the words."

Mr. Schaffer, an Air Force veteran, became acting unit manager of F Block in early 2010, and the work usually kept him at his desk until well after the 4 p.m. end of his official shift, he said. The accusations that have emerged against guards, though, stem from the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, and Mr. Schaffer said he had no inkling of trouble on the block until Jan. 5, 2011.

That's when investigators marched out Corrections Officer Harry F. Nicoletti, who now faces 89 criminal charges including institutional sexual assault. He is accused of identifying and targeting for abuse new inmates who were incarcerated for sex crimes, most of whom were on F Block briefly before being transferred to other institutions.

"If I had any knowledge of any of these incidents I would've reported it," said Mr. Schaffer.

On Jan. 6, 2011, Mr. Schaffer was approached by corrections investigator Gary Hiler, the lead agent in the probe that led to pending charges against Mr. Nicoletti and three other officers. Mr. Hiler told Mr. Schaffer to handle communications with inmate Casey C. Oliver, because if the investigator did that personally, it might arouse suspicion. Oliver, who had free rein on the block, provided crucial information on alleged abuses.

"I was uncomfortable with my involvement in assisting in a criminal investigation because that is not what I do," said Mr. Schaffer.

He was "threatened with a Code of Ethics violation and possibly discipline" should he refuse to help, according to his attorney, Cynthia Porta-Clark. He also was ordered to keep his involvement secret from his bosses.

Mr. Schaffer said he was forced for around six weeks to get information from Oliver and write it into emails to Mr. Hiler. He was compelled to help facilitate a botched effort to trick Mr. Nicoletti into meeting with an agent who would have posed as a cousin of Oliver.

Only when Oliver was transferred to a different lock-up did the demands on Mr. Schaffer stop, he said.

The stress didn't end. As six more guards were walked out of the prison and charged criminally, and sergeants were suspended, rumors swirled that Mr. Schaffer was next.

He sought counsel from then-Superintendent Melvin Lockett.

Mr. Lockett saw Mr. Schaffer coming "unglued," said Michael Farnan, attorney for the former superintendent. "He was very emotional, was showing poor judgment, had excited speech."

Mr. Lockett told Mr. Schaffer to see the jail psychologist and urged him to "take some time [off]," Mr. Farnan said.

Mr. Schaffer said he did both things. Shortly after, Mr. Lockett and three other top prison managers were terminated.

"Everyone below me got suspended," he said. "Everyone above me got fired."

Mr. Schaffer applied for workers' compensation for stress in June, but was promptly denied. He burned through all of his vacation, compensatory time off and sick leave, went on family and medical leave, and then got unemployment.

On March 6, a doctor to whom Mr. Schaffer was sent by the state said he could work again, but not at SCI Pittsburgh, because it would worsen his symptoms. But two days later, a department official wrote to him telling him he had three options: "return to full-time, full-duty work on [April 20] with a release from the health care provider," retire or be fired.

Lacking a doctor's release, Mr. Schaffer applied for a disability retirement, but was denied. He said he has not been formally advised of his firing.

He said he tried to reach Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to plead his case, but didn't get a call back.

He and his wife, who recently lost her job with a private employer, have had to skip prescriptions due to a lack of benefits. He said he believes he'll be hired as a parole agent, but the next training class doesn't start until September.

Ms. Porta-Clark doesn't blame her client's woes on malice, but on "a bureaucratic problem that the state has" in which its offices don't communicate about illnesses and injuries.

Mr. Schaffer said the department just doesn't care.

"Gov. [Tom] Corbett should be appalled as to how the Department of Corrections has abandoned staff that stuck their necks out and assisted in the investigation," he said. "I did as I was ordered and instructed to do ... and this is the outcome."

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Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. First Published May 1, 2012 4:30 PM


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