This is the first in what will be a series of reports by the Independent Gazette chronicling the judicial systems and child custody practices of Lackawanna, Luzerne, and surrounding counties. Through exclusive Lackawanna County interviews obtained by the Gazette, a picture will emerge of a legal — not justice — system run amok, fueled by greed, kept intact through intimidation, and veiled in secrecy, a complex web in which the abuse of power is rampant, and lawyers routinely close their eyes to misconduct for fear of being blackballed — and losing their homes and practices should they dare to speak out. This is a fear of being severed from the “money feeding tube,” as one court insider observed.
Within the culture of the court systems of Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties jurisprudence victims, court officers, police, lawyers, and civil employees will only come forward under anonymity out of concern of retribution from the powerful and well-connected. Reports are emerging of bizarre behavior unbecoming of judges, constituting clear violations of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct and kept under wraps lest swift and damaging retaliation befall the whistleblower. These whistleblowers describe judges throwing objects from the bench in fits of rage and making decisions in street clothes before receiving any actual evidence or testimony. Theirs is a legal system run afoul, where justice is often based not on facts, but on “who you know,” and delivered only to the well-connected.
In the aftermath of the “Kids for Cash” scandal the courthouse climate seems to have remained similar in Lackawanna County to that which fostered the Luzerne County travesty. Behavioral patterns appear to coincide, given surfacing claims that individual lives and the families associated with them have been wrecked by an over-aggressive, power hungry, and greed-filled judiciary.
In this initial “Custody” installment the Gazette will begin to focus on the recent conviction of Attorney Danielle Ross, the admitted felon and at one time sole guardian ad litem (GAL) for the Lackawanna Family Court. We will also look at the Lackawanna Guardian Ad Litem Program Review.
In June 2012, the Lackawanna Guardian Ad Litem Program Review report was issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). The office’s investigation was launched in response to a request made by Judge Thomas J. Munley, related on page 10:
In May 2011, President Judge Munley and County officials conducted an investigation of the GAL program based on allegations the program is a “Kids for Cash” scheme, and complaints about Ms. Ross’s billing practices. Mr. Browning was the main investigator.
The full report can be found at www.pacourts.us.
The Review paints a glowing picture of Ross and her work, as well as Judge Chester T. Harhut, who on June 17, 2008, agreed to select Ross to be “the sole GAL appointed by the Court. . . . Several judges commented the GAL program was set up with the best intentions by Judge Harhut,” according to the report. Judge Munley noted, “This court deems the GAL’s work to be very favorable. . . . There was widespread agreement among the family court’s judges, staff and service providers, that Ms. Ross is extremely dedicated to her GAL work. . . . Her work is exemplary.” Commendations such as the following are found throughout the AOPC’s assessment: “[Attorney Ross] does a fabulous job.”
The characterizations found in the AOPC report clash decidedly with those being presented to the Gazette by its sources. One of the court insiders who contacted us asked to remain anonymous for various reasons, claiming the report was nothing more than a “dog and pony show. . . . You know it is not right. . . . We have the investigated investigating themselves.”
Page 9 of the report states that “twenty-nine in-person and telephone interviews were conducted with judges, masters, court and County personnel, family law attorneys, child custody litigants and GAL program family service providers. Nine follow-up interviews with court staff and judges were held in February and March 2012. While most of the interviews were selected by JPD [Judicial Programs Department] staff, several individuals contacted the AOPC to offer information.”
One young woman very critical of the family court system as a result of her own interactions with it confided in the Gazette, observing, “It seems the only people interviewed were persons with involvement in the corrupt system, with the exception of litigants. Which litigants? The nine follow-up interviews were with the judges. Several individuals contacted mentioned in the AOPC report to offer information? Who are they?”
The report states the attorneys recommended by the Family Law Section, Lackawanna County Bar Association, asked to remain anonymous and that the JPD was “grateful for their candor.” Why would these professionals require anonymity if they had nothing but wonderful things to say about the Lackawanna County Family Court and its sole guardian ad litem? Were letters from child custody litigants reviewed? If so, where are these letters? Who sent them?
The Gazette investigated who specifically were interviewed — and how many — for the AOPC guardian ad litem review. We pressed Art Heinz, spokesperson for the AOPC report, but no specifics were available to him at that time, so he merely advised us to look at the Review to answer our questions. No other details were available to us at time of printing, but the Gazette will continue to pursue information concerning this important matter and will publish its findings in future installments of this ongoing story.
Longtime family court critic Bruce Levine, who was the first informant to approach the Gazette, is demanding transparent hearings. “We need open hearings. Let the people have a voice; let’s once and for all get this out in the open. These people are ruining lives and families.”
According to published reports Ross’s own attorney, David J. Solfanelli, stressed that her tax evasion plea “had to deal with reporting taxes, and had nothing to do with her job performance.”
According — once again — to Gazette sources, the plea had everything to do with Ross’s performance within the family court system. One despondent father recalled an incident during which Ross sent her secretary, Sue McIIwee, to perform a home inspection. Upon his questioning the qualifications of McIIwee, Ross allegedly responded, “If you ever wish to see your children again, shut up and pay $50.” The Gazette has listened to numerous similar charges of children being used as pawns for Ross’s gain. Custody for Cash.
Bruce Levine, at times during his experiences with Ross likewise despondent, said, “The damage was done, my boys’ mother was dead. We moved away for a year, to heal, for bereavement counseling. During this time I was urged to sue, sue for negligence. But this was not about money, this was criminal. I decided I must go to authorities, and tell them about Harhut, Ross, and others. I vowed to do whatever it takes so that this would never happen to a loving parent or child again.”
Levine continued, “I met with the DA, the FBI, and all they wanted to talk about was the money, exclusively, the money that Ross charged and extorted. They only cared about the money, [and were] not interested in the emotional and irreparable damage done to my boys caused by Danielle Ross and the court system. No, Mr. Solfanelli, this has everything to do with Ms. Ross’s job performance.”
Levine’s son Jordan, 19, was only 15 years old when he found his mother dying, and says of Ross, “She knew everything was going wrong, and did nothing. She let things go.”
Focusing again on the AOPC report, we find on page 10: “In May 2011, after numerous complaints were made, Mr. Pines is brought in for assistance. Mr. Pines had independently received complaints as well. After Judicial Programs Department JPD’s assessment began, it was learned that local and federal law enforcement was investigating the program and individuals connected with it.”
The JPD became aware that law enforcement was investigating the GAL, the GAL program, and others involved, yet did not act to remove Ross, who was allowed to remain the sole Lackawanna County guardian ad litem for two more years! Based on the JPD’s own figures, Ross was appointed to an average of 111 cases per year. In 2011, Ross claimed to have been appointed to 629 cases.
Judge Harhut states in the AOPC report that at least some of his reasoning when implementing the GAL system was that “PFAs were being filed in divorce cases and fathers were not seeing their children.” “Is there a reason Harhut didn’t research this phenomenon?” questioned another Gazette source. According to a 2006 report by the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence titled 10 Custody Myths and How to Counter Them, studies show that 25–50 percent of disputed custody cases involve domestic violence. Furthermore, the ABA report claims that child sexual abuse allegations in custody cases are rare (occurring in about 6 percent of the cases). “If the GAL had bothered to properly investigate, and if Judge Harhut himself had bothered to hear testimony, rather than stifle it, perhaps these facts would have been clear,” observed our informant.
An inside source from the scandal-shaken Luzerne County Family Court system had this to say about the Lackawanna County allegations: “A lot of people are making a lot of money off children.”
The Lackawanna AOPC report claims several judges were “adamant” that Judge Harhut’s vision and passion for the GAL program was what brought them to family court — that they bore a lot of respect for both him and Ross.
To that claim a Gazette source commented, “Isn’t it nice that these other judges were adamant? The sheer volume of adamant parents is astonishing. Their opinions of Harhut and Ross were not included in this report. The report claims the AOPC received phone calls and letters from litigants — I’m certain they could have published an excerpt from a letter. The role of the GAL is to come in as an advocate for the child. Then why, when children begged for her help, did she fail them?”
As an Editor’s Note to this story, let it be known that the sheer volume of complaints and allegations received by the Gazette since launching its investigation into the local family court system has been overwhelming. Assertions of parents with disabled children being targeted by the system in an effort to collect state grants and Social Security payments. Tales of abuses by lawyers, judges, and the system as a whole. The fear of being bullied for speaking out. Accusations that very often cases are pre-judged with little or no testimony heard.
The Gazette has been very careful in our initial story not to name names of those involved until a full investigation can be made into each and every allegation. As more details become available and more informants come forward our readers may be assured that information will be reported in full, regardless of what connected or influential individual, group, or organization might be implicated. Follow our progress each week online as we first dissect AOPC’s findings at www.WilkesBarreScrantonIG.com, endeavoring to shed light and raise awareness on the local family court systems and the larger county judicial systems as a whole.
Could what began during the Clinton Administration with legislation widely viewed at the time as motivated by altruistic intentions — the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act — have become bastardized by a system that has come to care more about greed than the health and welfare of children?