9-3-12 UPDATE: District Attorney Tom Hogan Weighs In (See end of post)
There was a troubling news article in last week’s Main Line Media News about one of Tredyffrin Township’s Zoning Hearing Board members, Suzy Pratowski. TE Patch, the Daily Local and, then a couple of days ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer, picked up the story.
There are several reasons why I think this story caught people’s attention, me included. The initial newspaper headline, ‘Zoning hearing board member not guilty after police are a no-show at her trial’, causing some of us a double take. Zoning hearing board member? Trial? MIA police officers? What was all of this about? Since when do township police officers not show up at trials? I cannot believe that this is a regular occurrence … I wonder when the last time was that a police officer did not show up for a scheduled hearing?
Remembering back a few years ago, I decided to fight a traffic violation in Tredyffrin and showed up at my scheduled time at Judge Blackburn’s courtroom. The traffic officer who had written my citation arrived on time for the hearing with his 6 in. thick codebook ready to defend his case against me. Although I was well prepared, (albeit sans an attorney), the police officer’s testimony prevailed – I lost the case and paid my fine. The point is, my hearing was for a routine traffic violation and the officer involved showed up. From the newspaper articles, Pratowski’s case is far from routine, and she isn’t just ‘Joe Citizen’ … Suzy Pratowski is a supervisor-appointed member of Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board.
For those that have not followed the case, Pratowski was arrested in Chesterbrook on May 28, charged on two counts, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, and issued citations. The situation involved a domestic altercation between Pratowski and her former husband, Jay Ciccarone. I have read the police reports and the account in the newspaper is accurate with one clarification. When Pratowski arrived to pick up her children at Ciccarone’s house, she was not driving but rather a passenger in a car driven by an unnamed male, a designated driver. Ciccarone was unwilling to turn the two boys over to Pratowski, citing their custody agreement, which requires that Ms. Pratowski not drink alcohol 10 hours before driving and picking up the children. The police officer determined that Pratowski had been drinking and therefore the children should remain with Ciccarone.
A photo accompanying the Main Line Media newspaper article showed Ms. Pratowski with township supervisor John DiBuonaventuro at a 2011 Devereux charity event. In reading the article, in conjunction with the accompanying photo, it is possible that a reader could conclude that DiBuonaventuro was the unnamed male driver on May 28. However, that assumption would be wrong … the police report names a Haverford attorney as the driver, not supervisor DiBuonaventuro. Pratowski left Ciccarone’s home without the children however, returned later that night on her bicycle and police were again called. With a PBT (preliminary breath test) reading of .18, the officer cited Pratowski with public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and returned her home in a police car.
Two years earlier, in June 2010, during a vehicle stop, Pratowski was charged with DUI, having received a PBT reading of .127. Pratowski’s two children were in the vehicle at the time and although initially charged with child endangerment, that charge was later dropped. Pratowski pleaded guilty to the DUI. In reading the police report from 2010, I noted that situation also involved Pratowski’s former husband Jay Ciccarone. Concerned for his children’s wellbeing, it was Ciccarone who called the police which ultimately resulted in Pratowski’s DUI arrest. The recent May 2012 incident was Pratowski’s second involving alcohol — a second offense that could have had grave consequences for Pratowski legally.
Although the charges against Pratowski were significant, it remains a real mystery as to why the police officers involved were no-shows at her hearing. Not just one police officer but two officers failed to show up. How is this possible? According to the Main Line Media News article, “Tredyffrin police Lt. Taro Landis said the officer who was supposed to show up in court that day was on another call at the time.” The police department explained the absent police officer as an ‘oversight’. Considering this was a second offense for this defendant, I do question why the police officer would have another call at the time. No mention as to why the other police officer was also MIA for the hearing.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer follow-up article, Tredyffrin Police Chief Tony Giaimo cited a ‘clerical error’ on the part of the officers as to the reason they did not show up at Pratowski’s trial. He further stated that the officers were disciplined but offered no details. OK, I’m confused … if it was a clerical error, why would the police officers need to be disciplined? And where exactly did the clerical error occur; within the police department, the District Court … the police officer’s Blackberry schedule?
It needs to be stated that the police officers involved in Pratowski’s May 28 arrest were not rookie cops. Allen Dori, is a 10-yr. veteran in the Tredyffrin police department and Daniel McFadden, a 20-year veteran and a certified crime scene investigator. Coincidentally just a couple of days before the Main Line Media story first appeared on August 24, both Dori and McFadden were promoted at the August 20 Board of Supervisors meeting. Police officer Dori was promoted from patrol officer to corporal and McFadden promoted from patrol officer to detective. Based on their experience and background, these two police officers do not strike me as individuals who would miss an important hearing because of a clerical error!
So let me understand this correctly, if there is a clerical error and the arresting police officer (or in this case, two police officers) does not show up at the hearing, the case is simply dismissed. Does this mean that the records of the case are expunged? When a clerical error occurs, am I to understand that there is no such thing as the rescheduling of the hearing. Magically, the problem is solved and the defendant receives a ‘pass’. Wow … amazing! Based on the remarks that Police Chief Giaimo gave to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it appears that the matter is closed, but should it be? .
In addition to process questions surrounding this incident, we are left with the open issue about Pratowski’s suitability to serve on the township’s Zoning Hearing Board. Appeals for relief from decisions of the Zoning Officer and/or requirements in the zoning Ordinance are handled by the ZHB. Unlike other boards and commissions in the township, the ZHB is a quasi-judicial body whose decisions are not subject to the approval of the supervisors. I am thinking that Pratowski’s guilty verdict for DUI in June 2010 should have warranted her dismissal from the ZHB. For those of you wondering what the grounds are for removal from the ZHB, the following is from the PA Municipal Planning Code that governs the ZHB in our municipality:
Article IX – Zoning Hearing Board and other Administrative Proceedings
Section 905. Removal of Members. Any board member may be removed for malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance in office or for other just cause by a majority vote of the governing body which appointed the member, taken after the member has received 15 days’ advance notice of the intent to take such a vote. A hearing shall be held in connection with the vote if the member shall request it in writing.
Reading the section titled ‘Removal of Members’, it would appear that Pratowski should be removed from the ZHB. Pratowski occupies the seat on the Zoning Hearing Board once held by John Petersen. As a former ZHB member, a supervisor and an attorney, I asked him for his comments —
I was very sad to hear about Suzy’s troubles. I’ve known her to be a good person and I sincerely hope that she gets to a point, for the benefit of her and her children, where portions of her life are not being played out in the paper. In most cases, this would be a private matter. Back in 2005 when I was appointed to fill vacancy on the BOS, I left the ZHB and had recommended Suzy to take my place. I was happy to do so then as she was qualified and has done a good job. However, as a former member of the governing body and the ZHB, I also have to consider the consequences of actions that place confidence in our public institutions at risk. Serving is a privilege, not a right. Given the history here, I have to wonder why Suzy was not removed from the ZHB back in 2010. These latest incidents only serve to add to growing list of questions concerning the integrity of our local government. It’s even worse when there is no confidence in the police, who at various times, holds, albeit brief, a decisive role in a person’s individual freedom. Between township staff, elected officials, certain boards and appointees or the dealings of those appointees and the police, nothing appears to be working correctly in Tredyffrin Township. I actually fear our government and police as they don’t act in the citizens’ best interest.
As to the “clerical error”, as a lawyer, I find that to be hard to believe. It’s a rather generic answer – one that the Inquirer should have followed up on with this simple question: “What was the error?” The workings between the district courts, the County and the various police departments are actually quite efficient. If this was a clerical error, then it was an error that was of the same proportion of that single bullet on that fateful day on November 22, 1963. There would have had to have been errors in Judge Sondergaard’s office as well as the administration in the police department and other people. Did other Tredyffrin Police manage to show up that day for other cases, or the day prior or after? Why this case? Why this person? When was the last time this sort of thing happened? Maybe it’s a common practice? But for Suzy’s private issues and the fact that she is a public official did this one come to light? Again, it’s about the appearance of impropriety.
Nobody has mentioned this yet, but I think it is fair game for DA Tom Hogan to make an inquiry here. As I see it, a full and open investigation is the only way the matter can get cleared up. We’ve already had a major scandal with former chief Chambers. And not too long before Chambers, chief Harkness was dismissed amidst a cloud of allegations the subject of which are/were part of a confidentiality agreement. Between that, alleged civil rights violations and other things – it’s not been a good time for the police or the government as a whole.
For longer than I care to remember, too many bad acts. In many ways, we’ve not progressed beyond Harry Marrone. Too many questions. This really goes to the honor and integrity of people. What I’ve been seeing lately is a lot of inaction and indecisiveness from township leadership. Again I ask – when is it going to stop? When are the adults going to take charge? When can people have confidence that their government and police will treat all people fairly and equally instead of calling person’s political affiliations out as just being a “Data point?” Anybody else, with these players involved, and I doubt seriously that there would be a “Clerical error.” And when they don’t treat people fairly and equally, will those same governmental actors ever be held accountable? Candidly, I was not a fan of Giamo’s promotion – given the recent history. Has nothing to do with Tony as a person or his qualifications. It has everything to do with the integrity of the institution and the confidence that public has in that institution. Sometimes, you just have to bring people in from the outside. I believe had we had truly shaken things up, there would not have been a “Clerical error.” One simply cannot look past the fact that Suzy was at a time, a TTRC member, dating a supervisor and of course, is a member of the ZHB. Anybody who cites those factors as being irrelevant is simply being willfully naïve. I lost my political mentor John Waldeyer in 2005. He was a good man and a great steward of good and honorable political values. He always said to me that the most important thing in politics and service is to be identified with good government. Everything else takes care of itself. A lot of people forgot those words. I’ve never forgotten them. John would be absolutely ashamed of what we see today. And if he were around today, we would not see the crap we’ve seen for the last 7 years. People around here have long forgotten what good government is. No government is perfect, but it can still be good nevertheless. John exercised discipline. John was an adult.
Finally, a personal plea to Suzy – if you have not done so, offer up your resignation. Doing so would mark the first time in a very long time a public official did the right thing in the face of adversity.
Do Tredyffrin Township residents really need another St. Davids sidewalk saga or a ‘big check’ moment — remember the fire funding spectacle with cameras rolling? As Carla Zambelli, fellow blogger and friend, wrote on Chester County Ramblings in her post , “enough Tredyffrin. enough” … “Tredyffrin needs to get its house in order and stop sounding and acting like a Shakespearian tragedy meets a made for TV movie on Lifetime.” Carla does have a way with words, just wish in this case, she wasn’t right.
9-3-12 UPDATE: District Attorney Tom Hogan Weighs In
I sent an email to District Attorney Tom Hogan, asking if this situation constitutes an investigation by his office. The DA called and we had a lengthy discussion on this matter. It is with his permission that I can offer this update. According to the Hogan, there has been an investigation and review. Police Chief Tony Giaimo conducted an internal department investigation and then asked for an outside review from the District Attorney’s office on the ‘clerical error’ matter. According to the internal police report, there were scheduling issues and the two police officers were not notified of Suzy Pratowski’s hearing date. The DA also reported that Pratowski’s former husband Jay Cicarrone was also not notified of the hearing date. Pratowski and her attorney were the only ones to receive notification.
Hogan also offered that because of township supervisor John DiBuonaventuro’s relationship with Pratowski (and questions concerning his possible involvement), the police as part of the investigation interviewed DiBuonaventuro. The police department determined that DiBuonaventuro was not involved in the situation. The internal investigation determined that a clerical error as the reason that the two officers missed the hearing. The District Attorney’s office reviewed the police department findings and was satisfied by the report.
I asked the DA how often does a clerical error occur that police officers miss a scheduled hearing. Although Hogan said that it does happen, he did say it was not common in Tredyffrin Township. I let our District Attorney know that many of us were troubled by the appearance of this situation. For the record, the District Attorney’s office has no jurisdiction over Pratowski’s continued membership on Tredyffrin’s Zoning Hearing Board – the appointment and removal of ZHB members is a Board of Supervisors matter.
There was discussion of the ‘not guilty’ verdict for Pratowsk, given that the two police officers and Cicarrone did not attend the hearing. I will defer the legal explanation of the judicial process to John Petersen, who also spoke with Tom Hogan. Here are John’s comments:
I had an opportunity to speak to DA Tom Hogan on the matter. Normally, jeopardy does not attach in a case like this until the first witness is sworn – when the trier of fact (the judge in this case) has begun his journey of fact finding. This is all about protecting a defendant’s 5th amendment rights to due process, and specifically, a defendant’s right to not be tried more than once for the same crime. In this case, the judge had 3 options (really only two legitimate options in my opinion). The first is to find the defendant not guilty and close the case. This would NOT have been appropriate in my opinion because the prosecution was not present due to what has been regarded as an honest clerical error. How could a judge weigh facts that were not presented? The big problem with this option – jeopardy attaches. To review, in this case, not only did the police not show up, but the judge took the one choice that assured this matter went away forever.
The other two options were to 1 – dismiss without prejudice – giving leave to the police to re file the charges or 2 – to simply continue the trial. It seems to me the one that was most prudent in this case was to simply order a continuance. That would have remediated the clerical error and it would not have resulted in any constitutionally protected rights of the defendant being violated. Dismissing the case would have required the police to re-file charges – which would have resulted in additional time and expense.
Apparently, Judge Rita Arnold, another DJ, successfully quashed a citation against her son. In her case, she was suspended for 30 days. She’s back on the bench. As for her son, he gets off scot free. If you are thinking it pays to have connections you are right. I have been told there is a strong likelihood of a memo going out to DJ’s that gives better guidance on when it’s appropriate to make a determination on guilt vs. a dismissal vs. a continuance. It’s a bit concerning that guidance has to be given on this. Shouldn’t judges know better? The DJ system is broken and this reinforces my opinion that DJ’s need to be lawyers. This often surprises folks that DJ’s don’t need to be lawyers.
My conclusion on this – we’ll likely never know what really happened here. I have to ask whether a regular, non-connected person would be as lucky? The answer is absolutely not. Justice was not served here. And yet again, a connected person caught breaks that non-connected people don’t get. I am left with no other conclusion that this particular defendant was helped by many people with influence. How and why do I conclude that? Because there are no facts to suggest otherwise.
I have no faith in any aspect of our local government, it’s people and it’s ability to do the right thing.