Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton has been weathering much criticism because of statements he recently made during a city council meeting, asserting, “In fact, crime is down in the city.” Gasps erupted from the stunned council audience, the very citizens who came to address what they perceived to be a rise in neighborhood crime (with homicides now trending at 30/year/100,000 residents), rather than a decline. Leighton also told reporters from some other outlets after that meeting that, “The reason why it appears there’s more crime is because we have more officers on the street arresting more people.”
Charlotte Raup, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Crime Watch Coalition, vehemently disagrees with the mayor’s assessment of decreased crime in the city, saying, “The mayor has lost touch with the state of the city.”
On July 25, Mayor Leighton phoned into WILK Radio’s Sue Henry Show. In response to a question posed by Sue Henry regarding the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association’s billboard on Business Route 309, he stated that administration critics “need to get a life.” The billboard features a photo of Leighton at the Department of Public Works (DPW) lot pumping gas into his personal vehicle in his T-shirt, placed behind the text “Mayor Got Gas?” and “www.StopFleecingTaxpayers.com” (pictured on right).
Frank Sorick, president of the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, is not impressed with the mayor’s comments. “The mayor has a lot of nerve telling the very people who pay his salary to get a life. After all, we, the people, provide that very gas he’s pictured pilfering on the billboard.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DoR) fined the city—or rather, the taxpayers of Wilkes-Barre—$25,919 for back taxes, penalties, and interest because of the city’s failure to adequately document its fuel consumption. The undocumented fuel has been deemed subject to the state sales tax. The DoR also made clear that the city administration had previously been informed of the department’s record keeping requirements when the DoR conducted a similar investigation into unaccounted-for fuel in 2007.
Many citizens have voiced their concerns over the Gasgate investigation, currently under review by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office. Bob Kadluboski, owner of City-Wide Towing and the individual responsible for filing the private criminal complaint that prompted the DA’s investigation, said he believes it’s the administration that should be on the hook for the DoR fine. “The mayor and every other person who took gas should be responsible for that fine, not the taxpayers,” he insisted.
Administration critic Mark Robbins contended publicly on his August 1 blog entry at www.WBTruth.blogspot.com that an unequal “application of the law” by DA Salavantis appears to have transpired, drawing contrasts between the case of recently-accused lawn equipment thief Michael Collins and the mayor’s alleged misappropriation of city fuel. Taxpayers association board member and frequent Gazette contributor Linda J Urban uttered a General McAuliffe-like “Phooey!” in assessing the absence of a final district attorney determination by August of this year.
Despite the DA’s investigation and public outcry, Leighton contends he did nothing wrong by pumping city-owned fuel into his personal vehicle, claiming during his Sue Henry Show appearance, “I never hid the fact that I took gas,” implying that because he pumped his gas in broad daylight that the timing somehow exonerates him from any wrongdoing.
Over the past several weeks the Independent Gazette has continually asked the city to elaborate on its policy as it relates to gas usage:
• Who is or was authorized to use city gas in their personal vehicles, now or previous to Gasgate?
• Is anyone still pumping city gas into a personal vehicle?
• If not, are employes who had been utilizing DPW fuel now seeking mileage reimbursement?
• If the action depicted in the billboard photo was acceptable at the time, is it still acceptable today?
Current city spokesperson Liza Prokop told the Gazette that the paper will need to ask prior city spokesperson Drew McLaughlin for responses to any and all questions regarding gas usage during his tenure, as “Drew is the only person qualified and/or authorized to make such statements.” All attempts to reach McLaughlin have failed. Phone messages left for Mayor Leighton seeking comment were not immediately returned. However during our final August publishing cycle visit to city hall on Friday, August 2, the mayor was seen cowering behind Prokop’s cubicle divider, even as the Gazette staff was attempting to elicit Gasgate clarification from Prokop.