On May 14 at 9:10 a.m. the Independent Gazette received an anonymous tip. The tip included a digital photo clearly depicting a cardboard box labeled with the handwritten words “Fiscal Adoption Files.” This box sat atop a garbage bin loaded onto a shredding truck just outside the Family Court annex on Spruce Street in downtown Scranton. So began the quest to discover who ordered the shredding, and whether it was actually time to dispose of these particular files.
A representative from Shred-All, a Moscow-based mobile shredding company, confirmed a contract with Lackawanna County; however, when Lackawanna County Children and Youth (CYS) employees were questioned regarding these files, their only response was to defer to Janine Pavalone, CYS solicitor.
Solicitor Janine Pavalone interview
Pavalone, who according to county records is a full-time solicitor for CYS, repeatedly scolded staff for disturbing her at her “personal office” on Washington Avenue, Scranton, that Wednesday afternoon. This solicitor’s county contract, dated February 28, 2013, calls for a $35,000 annual salary. During a Gazette interview later in the day on May 14, Pavalone was asked whether the county shreds files. She demanded some clarification of the question. When it was modified to whether the county shreds files at any time, Pavalone replied, “I need to research that, but all county agencies shred.” Upon specifying the question of who exactly orders adoption files to be shredded, Pavalone responded, “You’re not being specific.” When notified that the county CYS office directed Independent Gazette staff to her for answers, Pavalone shot back, “I don’t know who told you that, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Additionally, Pavalone stated that she had “no comment,” and does not “do purchasing.” Pavalone referred staff to the Lackawanna County Commissioners Office for answers.
At the County Commissioners Office, Maria Elkins, chief of staff, confirmed that the policy is to transfer files to an electronic database and destroy physical files after five years. Elkins said any further questions should be directed to Bill Browning, CYS Executive Director.
In a phone interview that week, Browning clarified that the county intends to transfer all files to an electronic database; however, that program is “in its infancy,” he said. Browning further explained that while some files are shredded “in-house,” that decision depends on the size of the file and the amount of shredding required. According to Browning, all files are stored in a 1,000-square-foot room in the CYS office on the 4th floor of the Spruce Street Annex building. He also stated that nothing is to be shredded before it reaches the five-year storage mark.
The particular box brought to the Gazette’s attention was marked “through 12-31-10.” This begs the question: why were these files being shredded when, clearly, 12-31-15 would constitute the five-year mark? Browning did state that the county was transferring files to an electronic database; however, other county employees seemed very reluctant to answer any questions regarding this particular box.
Also, it should be noted that, according to Title 55, Pennsylvania Code, Section 3350.14(f), “Records shall be sealed and stored in fireproof, locked, metal files to keep them safe from destruction.” The files brought to the Gazette’s attention were stored in a hand-labeled cardboard box with detachable lid and left in the view of the general public in downtown Scranton.
Unsupported allegation against the Gazette
Following the interview at Janine Pavalone’s office, an Independent Gazette staff member attended a review hearing with a woman on June 2 with the sole intention of acting as a means of support for the young mother. At no time on that occasion was there any intent to act as a reporter. Pavalone was present as attorney for the Office of Children and Youth services, and the case was heard by Judge Margaret Moyle. Prior to the start of the hearing, Gazette staff was asked to leave the open courtroom, but not before Pavalone stated to the court that they had recorded the May 14 interview at her office. “I know you,” said Pavalone, directing her words to this author. “You came to my office. You recorded me!” This writer admitted she had been to Pavalone’s office to interview her, but reminded Pavalone that the interview had not, in fact, been recorded. The solicitor replied, “Yes, yes you did.” Gazette staff responded within a few days to Pavalone’s accusations before the court with a letter to county commissioners and judges, including Judge Moyle, asking whether Pavalone had provided any evidence to corroborate her allegations and requesting that Pavalone be admonished for her slanderous accusations. The letter has received no written response to date. Although Judge Moyle did later respond verbally, stating, “I will not admonish her,” Moyle was reminded that there were two staff members present for the May 14 Pavalone interview and neither had recorded the solicitor.
A wiretapping warning in the state of two-party consent
Two days later, on June 4, Independent Gazette staff attended a hearing with a young father fighting as a pro se (self-represented) litigant to prevent termination of his parental rights. Again, staff was asked to leave the open court, but not before Judge Moyle had thoroughly lectured those present about federal wiretapping laws as a “federal felony offense.” The incident in question concerned a member of The Pennsylvania Coalition for Family and Parent’s Rights, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and advocating for families, and her use of a speakerphone in the public corridor of the annex building. The speakerphone was used with all parties’ consent during an unrecorded conversation with another Coalition member and Judge Moyle’s clerk. Federal wiretapping laws, per 18 USC § 2511, pertain to interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. A subsection of this law states:
“It shall not be unlawful under this chapter for a person not acting under color of law to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication where such person is a party to the communication or where one of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to such interception unless such communication is intercepted for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States or of any State.”
In addition to a lack of communications interception, consent was given by all parties involved to include this individual in the conversation via speakerphone. At a continuation of this hearing on June 9, Judge Moyle again ruled that no media should be permitted to remain in the courtroom. Additionally, Moyle stated that she had originally intended to allow the Lackawanna County liaison for the Pennsylvania Coalition for Family and Parent’s Rights to remain in the courtroom as an advocate or support for the litigant, but she reversed her decision. Moyle stated that she felt the county liaison was actually there in the capacity of an undercover investigative reporter, and that she was not being forthright regarding her intentions to support the litigant. The advocate stated she was not present as a reporter in this particular instance. The litigant did request that all parties be permitted in the courtroom; however, the ruling to close the court remained, ostensibly to protect the children involved.
There are still no clear answers regarding the shredding of the fiscal adoption files on Spruce Street in mid-May, and it seems there are now additional questions requiring answers as well. Why, especially if a litigant requests the court remain open, should a ruling be made to close the court? Why does this closing of the court seem to only pertain to particular individuals, and what is really happening behind these closed doors?