Last updated: June 14. 2014 12:07AM - 2156 Views
By - jlynott@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — A county judge directed the state Department of Revenue to provide its entire file pertaining to a more than $5,300 payment made by Wilkes-Barre for the improper sale of tax-free fuel between 2007 and 2009.

A challenge in March by city resident Frank Sorick to a denial by the state’s Office of Open Records of his request for information prompted the decision Tuesday by Luzerne County Judge Lesa Gelb.

Her order covers “bills/invoices/letters to and from the City of Wilkes-Barre” which generated the payment to the department. The city agreed with her decision.

Sorick said the judge told him she would provide a copy of the file’s contents to him.

He filed the RTK request, seeking to obtain a copy of the letter that he said the department confirmed it had and sent to the city.

“The letter was a warning to the city. It told them about the reason they were being cited,” he said Thursday. The letter reportedly dealt with the city reselling fuel to the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and the Wilkes-Barre Housing Authority and not charging tax on the sales.

The letter, he said, predates the federal probe into fuel missing from the city’s tanks at the Department of Public Works yard. He added that it also shows that the city was made aware that it could not pump gasoline or diesel fuel into vehicles that did not have municipal license plates.

“That’s what makes it very important. This is not the first time,” Sorick said of why he was pressing the issue.

The Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association, of which Sorick is president, paid for a billboard last year with a photo of Mayor Tom Leighton pumping gas into a sport utility vehicle at the city pumps. Leighton acknowledged that he pumped city fuel into a non-city vehicle that he used for municipal business.

The probe began in 2012 by the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office after The Times Leader reported that the city could not account for thousands of gallons of fuel over a two-year period. In March, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis confirmed that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office also are working on the investigation.

The state Department of Revenue assessed the city $25,919.42 in taxes, interest and penalties in October 2012 for approximately 67,000 gallons of fuel that were not documented. The city paid the assessment and appealed, seeking a refund. In June 2013 the department denied the appeal.

Sorick said he asked the city for the letter in the earlier case and he was told it did not have it.

“There has to be something, even a bill,” Sorick said.

The city provided him a spreadsheet and a copy of the $5,316.92 check made out to the department on Aug. 6, 2009 for “Gas Usage 07-09.”

In his appeal of the denial by the Office of Open Records, Sorick submitted a sworn affidavit dated March 20 that said the department confirmed it had the letter, but that the city would have to request it.

City Administrator Marie McCormick also said in a sworn affidavit dated March 20 that she contacted the department inquiring about documents requested by Sorick and was informed that it had nothing other than the spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet covered a 30-month period from January 2007 to June 2009. It contained columns for both gasoline and diesel fuel usage, the tax due, interest, penalty and a total monthly assessment. For the gasoline, it listed 2,072.4 gallons, $3,766.58 in tax due, $286.24 interest, $376.66 penalty and a total due of $4,429.47. Likewise for the diesel, it listed 1,976.7 gallons, $753.12 tax due, $59.01 interest, $75.31 penalty and total due of $887.44. The combined total due was $5,316.91.

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