Federal Judge A. Richard Caputo sentenced former sole Lackawanna County Guardian ad Litem Danielle Ross to 12 months jail time and ordered restitution of $63,124 in his Wilkes-Barre courtroom on April 16. “I must impose just punishment and it must be a deterrent for others from committing a similar crime,” said Caputo. Ross pled guilty last December to attempted income tax evasion.
Ross’s attorney, David Solfanelli, asked the court to consider house arrest for his client. Solfanelli argued that even though it was a serious offense, no malice was expressed by Ross. He stated that the person is to be sentenced, not the crime. Solfanelli also noted that Ross enjoyed tremendous support from family and friends, worked tirelessly in her duties as a GAL, cared for others, and was a good example to her children — even looking to better herself by continuing her education. Ross will need to defer plans to obtain her doctorate while incarcerated. Ross’ attorney further stated that as a lawyer she has been humiliated already and that he did not feel incarceration was necessary.
The prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Michelle Olshefski, thought differently. “This is a very serious offense. As a lawyer she should have known better. She was in a position of trust and she violated that trust,” she said. Olshefski continued, “Nothing about this case is special, and the community deserves to see justice.”
Ross spoke briefly and was visibly upset while assuring Judge Caputo that she would “never be before the honorable court again.”
Solfanelli cited the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Court’s (AOPC) review of the Lackawanna County Guardian ad Litem program in a pre-sentencing report. The AOPC review, in glowing terms, praised the work of Ross in her role as a GAL and even Lackawanna County’s current president judge, Thomas J. Munley, was cited commending Ross for her diligence. The Independent Gazette has been conducting its own investigation into the report and has determined that it is filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. For example, the report claims to have discredited speculation that Ross was earning far more than she reported as the county’s GAL. Page 47 of the AOPC review clearly states the agency surveyed Ross’ IRS 1099 tax forms for the years 2008 through 2011 and, based on the figures Ross and her husband Walter Pietralczyk reported, determined she may have earned slightly more than she indicated in tax filings, but not the “hundreds of thousands of dollars per year some have suggested.” However, the IRS indicted Ross on tax evasion based on inconsistent reporting for years 2009 and 2010 in which she failed to claim approximately $200,000 in income. The AOPC clearly overlooked quite a bit of unreported income.
Additionally, the AOPC review claims to have investigated Ross’ billing practices by looking over her case files; however, the agency also states on page 45 of its publication that some cases had no clear record of billing, and that in other cases notations were found claiming Ross’ fees were “at the discretion of the GAL.” While the AOPC admits this “should not occur” and “is not necessarily appropriate,” there was apparently no follow-up by the office as to why such invoicing irregularities did occur. Instead, the AOPC attributes the anomalies to filing errors, noting that the irregular billing methods were “discouraged.” An additional inaccuracy regarding Ross herself can be found on page 35, in which the AOPC states that “Ms. Ross has been a practicing attorney since 1994.” Danielle Ross was still a student at West Scranton High School in 1994.
Judge Caputo seemed not to be swayed by the defense and said, “This sentence is about tax evasion. The life you live is neutral — just because you lived a good life, I don’t really consider it.”
The positive AOPC review did not seem to carry much weight either. As has been reported previously in the Gazette, there are numerous inaccuracies within the document, not to mention that it was commissioned by the courts and prepared by the courts, ostensibly to protect the courts. “You know it’s not right,” observed a Gazette inside informant. “We have the investigated investigating themselves.”