Luzerne County deputy coroner Daniel Hughes was cleared of an August 2012 ethics allegation against him because the county ethics commission voted to dismiss the case Thursday.
The commission had issued a preliminary decision a year ago that Hughes should be admonished for violating a county ethics code ban applying to deputies affiliated with funeral homes, but Hughes maintained his innocence and argued through his attorney that the county’s system to process ethics complaints was legally flawed.
Representing Hughes, attorney Kim Borland had said the admonishment recommendation was issued without giving Hughes a copy of the complaint or the opportunity to challenge the assertions.
Board’s dual role
The ethics code, which was approved by County Council, also puts the ethics commission in charge of both investigating complaints and presiding over hearings challenging the commission’s initial decisions.
“It is a violation of the most fundamental precepts of American government and justice for a governmental body, such as this commission, to issue punishment first and allow for a hearing later,” said paperwork filed by Hughes.
County Assistant District Attorney Jim McMonagle also questioned the legality of the code earlier this year, saying the commission “seems to serve as prosecutor, jury and judge.”
Commission members said Thursday a hearing on the deputy coroner matter was halted due to the issues raised about the legality of the process. Before voting to throw out the complaint, members said they can’t go forward under procedures that don’t ensure complaint subjects have a legally sound right to due process.
County officials have retained local attorney Donald Brobst to identify legal concerns with the code and recommend alterations to council. One possibility would be assigning the ethics commission to handle either the initial investigation and preliminary rulings or hearings — but not both.
Commission Chairwoman Margaret M. Hogan said the commission will soon present recommendations to revamp the code to council.
The code and a commission to police it were required by the county’s home rule charter. The county district attorney, controller, manager and two council-appointed citizens serve on the commission.
Wilkes-Barre college student Belinda Coulibaly, whose father unexpectedly died of natural causes, filed the complaint against Hughes, asserting he violated a ban prohibiting coroners from soliciting, discussing or accepting business for a funeral home with which they are associated while they’re engaged in county business.
Hughes has said he had “no such discussion” while engaged in his role as deputy coroner.