Custody for Cash: Disapp(H)earing acts

Reports of vanishing legal documentation are now emerging

As the Custody for Cash saga continues and new information is brought forth, the Independent Gazette has discovered yet another issue worth investigating within the family court system. According to several sources, docket listings — and even entire dockets — are often incomplete or inaccurate. Items often vanish from the record, and even the records themselves seem to disappear.

Once an action is initiated within the county court system, the court clerk is required to create an entry on a docket sheet or docket listing. These entries are chronologically listed, and each one should note the date and description of the action filed, including, but not limited to, motions, briefs, petitions, orders and rulings. An order should not be entered on the docket listing, for example, without the corresponding hearing that resulted in that order.

Family courts, however, seem to have trouble creating and maintaining accurate docket listings, according to a confidential Gazette source. Again, it should be noted that sources who ask to remain anonymous do so as a result of a legitimate fear of judicial and court retribution. Intimidation and scare tactics seem to be par for the course, with children seemingly being used as leverage to ensure litigants’ silence. “They’re playing a game of high-stakes chicken,” said the source. This mother, a litigant in a custody case in Berks County, realized only by accident that the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) appointed to represent the best interests of her children began filing all court documents pertaining to the family’s case in Dependency Court rather than Family Court to intentionally hide the filings from the litigant. Our source further stated that the opposing litigant in her case submitted to a lie detector test in an effort to clear himself of sexual abuse allegations; however, the results of that lie detector test went missing — for two years. “You file stuff, it gets lost and then miraculously they find it,” she said. She continued, “And it’s not just me. Everybody believes the façade that there is truth and justice, but it’s a mockery. It’s a free-for-all and there’s nobody watching the candy store.”

Lawsuit file goes missing in Lycoming County
Steve Wicks filed a federal lawsuit alleging local, state, and federal corruption, and claims he was blatantly lied to when he requested his file from the Lycoming County Prothonotary. Wicks was told that his entire file was missing. He returned to the clerk of courts office a second time in July 2013 and this time a staff member gave Wicks a file including emails between William Burd, the county prothonotary and Robin Read, county solicitor as well as a letter from Burd to Lycoming County judge Dudley Anderson dated April 8, 2010. This letter clearly states: “Since the attached file was mentioned in the ‘federal lawsuit,’ I have kept same in a sealed file cabinet behind my desk since 3/9/2010.” Additionally, Read states in an email dated June 5, 2010, to Burd that an attorney had gone to Judge Anderson’s chambers to review Wicks’ file and it was “spread out all over a table,” and it was “a mess.” All emails and letters are included as exhibits in Wicks’ lawsuit to substantiate his claim that the courts are corrupt.

Harrisburg civil rights attorney Don Bailey, who represents Wicks, stated in a phone interview that he will not back down. “They were hiding his files,” he said. “They were lying and this stuff has got to stop.” Bailey continued, explaining that they feel these files were hidden in an effort to cover criminal actions, and that it was a “grand conspiracy to reconstruct [Wicks’] file.” Bailey said other attorneys in Pennsylvania are often not free to speak about such corruption as they worry about retaliation from the courts. “Attorneys seem to care more about their relationship with the court before their clients,” he said. Bailey, a self-proclaimed “boat rocker,” has been advocating for clients whose civil rights have been violated for a number of years. He added that “there is a questionable transaction [every] minute” within the court system. “It’s a good-old-boys system and the Judicial Conduct Board and the Lawyers Disciplinary Board should be thoroughly investigated.” While he is concerned about retaliation against himself and his family, Bailey stated in no uncertain terms “they are not going to shut me up.”

A drug test in exchange for docket access?
Edward Bonifanti, a father fighting to retain his parental rights to his two small children, discovered when he asked the Lackawanna County Clerk of Courts for his own docket listing that it had been given to the county Children and Youth Services. Lackawanna County CYS is the plaintiff in Bonifanti’s case. Bonifanti wondered why the plaintiff would be given the opportunity to add or delete documentation at will. “I don’t know why the plaintiff has my documents,” he said. “It is absolutely ridiculous.” Bonifanti said he entered the Clerk of Courts office in downtown Scranton and, upon requesting his listing, was initially informed that it did not exist. When he questioned this response, he was told that even if the docket was in the office that staff could not provide him with it without breaching confidentiality. Bonifanti said he reminded staff that he was, in fact, entitled to true and unaltered copies of his docket under the Freedom of Information Act, at which point he was promptly asked to leave the building.

A phone call to the Lackawanna County Clerk of Courts office to verify this information was quickly disconnected with no comment. Bonifanti then visited his CYS Caseworker, Korey Fleming, to request the same information. According to Bonifanti, Fleming first informed him that the county solicitor would need a week to prepare the files as information would need to be redacted. When Bonifanti reminded Fleming that he was entitled to unaltered copies Fleming then told him he would need to submit to a drug screening. Bonifanti, who states he has voluntarily submitted to more than 20 drug tests and with each result negative, refused. “I’m here to get my files,” he told Fleming. “I don’t see how a drug test is necessary.” Upon his refusal, Bonifanti was informed  that he would be marked as having an automatic positive result. A call to Fleming was not answered and a message was not returned. “I will get my documents,” said Bonifanti. His children were removed from his custody in February 2013, and Bonifanti has been fighting for their return since. He said he intends to continue fighting, even though he is facing a hearing to terminate his parental rights on June 4, 2014. “I love them and I miss them,” he said. “I will get my kids back.”

  • Tara Koval
  • Tara Koval has been an investigative journalist since 1999. She is also an outspoken advocate for judicial reform, especially within the Family Court system.

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