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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  1. Good for you Don! So many attorneys fold under the pressure of corruption and fear but where does that leave us and our children? How do you teach your children right from wrong, truth from falsehoods when they experience it first hand, adults in authority lying and not protecting families and especially children. My four children, adults now, had to learn at a young age, coming out of a very abusive family life, that the family court cared more about money than protecting them from harm. I applaud your efforts to tell the truth for all of us and I only hope that you suffer no more retaliation. We all know what that is like-Take care Don. Val

  2. Another great article Tara.  It never fails to amaze me how this corruption, abuse of power, ignorance to civil rights and outright threats are committed day after day after day.  There are very few BRAVE attorneys who step up and fight for what is right.  God Bless you Don Bailey!  We need an army of attorneys like you to put an END to this sick fraud and dishonesty in our courts and CYS agencies.

  3. good old Lackawanna County Family Court. They could make the Grand Canyon disappear but cannot conduct themselves in a moral, honest and caring manner. Bunch of animals in black robes.

  4. where was good old Chester Harhut aka Judge Smails when these documents are missing.

  5. So this “paper” just prints what anyone says without verifying anything? Excellent journalism here. Pride of NEPA you are.

  6. padoe  Listen up, you must be a member of the court house crew that make the documents in question disappear. Think about it your are an employee of the most corrupt county in the State of Pennsylvania, plus Pennsylvania is the fifth most corrupt state in the union, so the fact is you my good friend are in denial.

    Maybe you are en officer of the corrupt family court system in Lackawanna County? A judge?? or just a court house stooge?? all of these is my guess. The truth shall overcome!!!

  7. chwatchbird1 padoe I don’t work for the county or any level of government. You don’t back up anything that you say, so that pretty much makes all of it irrelevant. My point has nothing to do with county corruption and everything to do with crappy reporting by this “reporter”. None of the “facts” the subject in this article state have been verified as being true. Just because someone says it doesn’t mean it happened. If that’s the case then I say you look like a donkey. It must be true because I just said it.
    I get that cases involving family court are hard to report on because records are sealed and emotions are high. But records are sealed for a reason, to protect the kids. If you don’t believe me then look it up for yourself. There isn’t a professional out there who thinks it’s good for kids who are in this situation for no reason of their own, to have their names in the word under these headlines. Some people are shitty parents and I’d bet a million dollars this dude is exactly that. He’s just trying to make himself look good.

    But nice try with the whole corruption deflection….the truth will come out one day and I would make another bet you and most people who commented on this will look like idiots.

  8. padoe chwatchbird1  You my friend are making a nice profit at the expense and misery of others. The fact is paper work disappear and much of the proceeding are either not recorded or removed from the record, that is a fact. They could care less about the kids it is the bucks and to protect themselves, I have seen them in action. 

    To answer your next question I am not a dude whatever that means but it sure exposes the extent you education. You my friend are a court house stooge living off the misfortune of others a disgrace.


  9. Delaware County is among the most corrupt and I’ve got proof.
    Please sign my petition. Google paula lombardi petition

  10. Just not happening in Luzerne or lackawanna  it’s happening under DA Morgenelli’s watch in Northamtpon and  calling Zigmont Pines at the AOPC  is useless too

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