Walter Griffith has criticized many Luzerne County government employees and officials since he was elected county controller in 2009, so there wasn’t much sympathy beneath the courthouse dome Friday for his arraignment on felony wiretapping charges.
“If this was anyone else in the county, Walter would be the first one out there asking them to resign,” said county Councilman Rick Morelli.
Morelli respects the elected controller’s independent watchdog role, he said, but believes Griffith often veered into personal attacks without justification. The state Attorney General’s Office, which filed the charges, documented examples of recordings Griffith made without the permission of parties involved, he said.
“I personally believe that Walter abused his power in his elected capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t look good for the county.”
Morelli said Griffith must have the right to due process but wants him to step down if he is found guilty or pleads guilty.
That would happen anyway, because the county’s home rule charter says county elected officials must forfeit their office if they are convicted or plead no contest to any felony.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said the charges must advance through the court system. “Until we reach an outcome, I think it’s too early to offer any real thoughts or statements about it,” McGinley said.
Another county official, who declined to comment with attribution, pondered Griffith’s role reversal Friday, saying: “Walter was always going after the headlines. Now he’s the headline. How does he like it?”
The sentiment of one management-level employee: “We’re all sick of being under Walter’s veil of suspicion when we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Griffith has pointed to policies and audits he’s completed during his first term, saying he turns to the news media to highlight problems because he wants to keep the public informed and often believes county officials ignore his findings.
Kingston resident Brian Shiner, who attends all county meetings and often speaks out, said he has reviewed the charges against Griffith and stands by him. “I think Walter was getting too close to too many truths, and the political wheel of this county had to step in and try to stop him,” Shiner said. “I have faith in Walter. I respect Walter’s fearlessness. I feel whatever he did was in the best interest of citizens of this county.”
Shiner said Griffith pointed out problems “when nobody else would step up.”
“Walter has been giving of his own long before he became county controller,” Shiner said.
Both candidates seeking the Democratic county controller nomination in Tuesday’s primary — Michelle Bednar and Stephen A. Urban — criticized Griffith, who is running against Karen Ceppa-Hirko for the Republican nomination.
“This is another sad day for Luzerne County, another black eye in a long line of disservice to our residents,” Bednar said in a statement. “This culture has to change, and this can only occur through the election of qualified, new candidates.”
Urban said the law forbids recording people without their consent or knowledge. A controller elected to hold others accountable also must be accountable himself, he said.
“He violated the public trust. His integrity is out the window. He said he knew it was wrong to record people and claimed he didn’t do it, but he did,” Urban said.
“I think he owes it to the people to bow out of the election.”