The Kings and Queens of Wilkes-Barre
NEPA: A history of nepotism, cronyism, and political patronage
Throughout Pennsylvania municipalities, townships, and counties are seeking to cut costs by lowering wages, eliminating jobs, and reducing hours for their employees in an effort to rein in exploding budgets. At every turn policemen, firemen, and other essential workers are being asked for concessions in benefits and salary. For many, layoffs are in the cards: just in the final week of November eleven firefighters and four DPW workers were given notice that their services were no longer needed by the City of Wilkes-Barre. At the same time, homeowners are facing enormous tax hikes, putting some in jeopardy of losing the very dwellings they have possessed for years. Businesses are closing, and the tax base is moving or simply dwindling. Food and fuel prices have risen sharply in recent years, placing an additional strain on every household, and especially those on fixed incomes. The poor and working classes struggle to stay afloat, feeling the pinch at every turn, while local governments seem intent on increasing fees, fines, and taxes as a means to plug their funding gaps.
From the President, to governors, and up to the mayors, we hear a nearly unanimous call to “shared sacrifice” in order to right their respective economic ships. If there is indeed to be shared sacrifice then we must examine who receives the jobs, who benefits from the special privileges, who is permitted to stay on board, and who is awarded the government contracts. Frank Sorick, of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association said, “For too long our schools, court houses, and governmental agencies get filled with political patronage, family, and friends, while the hard working citizens of our communities continually get squeezed. It must end.”
Linda Urban is also a Taxpayers Association board member who wants the “sharing” to start at the top. “We have an elite class here in Wilkes-Barre. Certain families get the appointed positions, the great benefits, and bloated salaries. I want the mayor to lead and cut his salary and benefits first,” stated Urban at a recent council meeting. For the time being that has not happened, though as Mayor Leighton has opted to commence with the fire department before looking in-house. Leighton’s salary of $79,911 is the third highest among Pennsylvania mayors.
Mrs. Urban’s point is well-taken and what she describes is certainly nothing new to the area. In an article published August 11, 2002 the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported that then Principal of Wilkes-Barre Vocational Technical School, Frank Majikes, “rattled off a list of his relatives who work for the city, county and the School board … They must have eight or nine jobs.” Nothing much has seemed to change. Last year, Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton faced ethics charges over the hiring of his children for summer jobs, charges which were later dropped. Leighton’s brother, John works in Luzerne County Domestic Relations, while another brother, Brian Leighton works in the County Adult Probation. In addition, son, Tom, Jr. is employed by the Wilkes-Barre Area School District.
And positions aren’t restricted to the Mayor’s immediate family. City Chief of Police Gerald Dessoye is married to Tom Leighton’s cousin, Jeannie. The Luzerne County District Attorney’s Detective Division is supervised by Chief Michael J. Dessoye, Gerald Dessoye’s brother. William Vinsko, Wilkes-Barre’s Assistant Solicitor is also a cousin of Mayor Leighton’s. City Clerk Jim Ryan is the husband of the former Jeanmarie Majikes. Frank Majikes’ wife, Lore Majikes functions as the City’s Special Events Coordinator, while John Majikes serves as a City police officer. Barbara (Majikes) Smith was employed as Police Chief Dessoye’s secretary until her retirement this year. It could be said that the Leighton and Majikes families are the Kings and Queens of Wilkes-Barre — but it doesn’t stop there.
The Independent Gazette recently received a response to a Right-to-Know Request concerning staffing of city positions, boards and agencies which makes clear that the nepotism and cronyism plaguing Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, the courthouses, and schools extend well beyond the Leighton and Majikes families. In a recent interview with Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith, he informed the Gazette that, “There are an awful lot of similar names on the county payroll.” Is there a conflict of interest and should we be concerned with nepotism? “Yes!” was his response.
Is it fair to cut protective services while certain families continue to collect multiple salaries, pensions, and other benefits at the taxpayers’ expense? Not according to Betsy Summers, longtime local advocate for good and honest government. “For too long we have heard that this is the way it has always been, and the way it will always be. Enough is enough. We deserve and must demand better — our very survival requires it.”
And the problems go well beyond just who is filling the job positions. Who is awarded the contracts, for what, and for how much? A recent example is Fox Rothschild of Philadelphia, the law firm of one Patrick Murphy, brother of former City Administrator J.J. Murphy. Fox Rothschild represented the City’s Parking Authority this year in its — later terminated — negotiations to lease the City’s parking assets. The law firm subsequently submitted a bill totaling nearly $100,000. J.J Murphy, by means of his Goals Consulting company, billed at the rate of $300 an hour.
All of this evidence begs the question: can good government be expected when that government is comprised of brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, and in-laws? As we seek opportunities for further cuts should we focus on the Kings, and Queens, along with their court of Princes, Princesses, and court jesters? This is a question we ought to ask ourselves as conditions become progressively more difficult for more and more families. Has the time come to break the cycle? Are the dreams and hopes of our children being crushed as they hear mantras of the kind that so many have heard in the past, “You will never get a teaching job in this area unless you are connected?” One can only wonder what scandals and improprieties are yet to come to light, but come to light they will.