Three state Superior Court judges have said Luzerne County Assistant District Attorney Michael Melnick holds the key to his possible jail cell.
Melnick in March 2013 was found in contempt of court by Luzerne County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. during a dramatic and testy pre-trial hearing in the theft case against Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Paul Yuknavich.
Yuknavich, 50, was charged by the state police at Wyoming with stealing $11,865 from the fire department’s bank account from 2008 to 2010 and using the department’s credit card at two Sam’s Clubs for $3,706 in personal purchases from 2009 to 2011.
A jury was selected to hear the trial, which was delayed when prosecutors appealed Sklarosky’s ruling that tossed 15 bounced checks as evidence against Yuknavich.
It was during the pretrial hearing over two days prior to jury selection when Sklarosky found Melnick in contempt of court when the judge felt Melnick was not answering questions from Yuknavich’s attorney, Barry Dyller, about the name and number of banks Yuknavich allegedly cashed checks.
Sklarosky had warned Melnick to “bring his toothbrush.”
Resolution of the contempt charge was delayed due the appeal by prosecutors, which sought the recusal of Sklarosky, the reintroduction of the 15 bounced checks and overturning of Melnick’s contempt charge.
In its ruling Friday, the Superior Court panel of three judges did not entertain the contempt charge saying it was Melnick’s sole responsibility to file the appeal, not the district attorney’s office.
“Because ADA Melnick is able to purge himself of the contempt and thus holds the key to the jailhouse door,” the Superior Court said.
The contempt charge can be erased if Sklarosky allows another opportunity for Melnick to answer Dyller’s questions about the number and name of banks where Yuknavich allegedly cashed checks, the appellate court ruled.
Prosecutors moved to have Sklarosky removed from the trial because Melnick during the pretrial hearing made reference to a dinner that Sklarosky attended with Dyller and his wife, Judge Lisa Gelb, sometime in February 2013, a month before the trial was scheduled to begin.
The dinner was attended by 12 or more people, including other judges and their spouses.
The Superior Court ruled it is not unusual for judges to mingle with attorneys at social functions despite the attorney having open cases before that particular judge.
Prosecutors are prohibited from using 15 bounced checks against Yuknavich because the Superior Court found that the checks would “confuse and mislead the jury.”
“I’m not surprised,” Dyller said Monday. “The Superior Court said we were correct, we were right.
“We’ll go through the normal legal procedure and we’ll see on this particular one how it goes before Judge Sklarosky,” Dyller noted.
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis was unavailable to comment on Monday, and First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce did not return a message for comment.
The appellate court’s ruling does not impact a second theft case against Yuknavich at which state police charged him with failing to deposit more than $48,000 into the fire department’s bank account from 2006 to 2010.
A status conference on the second theft case is scheduled Wednesday before Judge Michael T. Vough.