WILKES-BARRE – The man who had been known as Luzerne County’s watchdog will now be watched by the county for three years after pleading guilty Tuesday to illegally recording conversations. He was immediately sentenced to probation.
Former County Controller Walter Griffith appeared Tuesday in Luzerne County Court, where he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of obstructing the administration of justice and was sentenced to three years probation.
Griffith, 58, of Kingston Township, was originally charged with three felony counts relating to the recorded conversations, actions his attorney says were a product of Griffith’s zealousness.
“My dad always told me everything is good in moderation,” attorney Joe D’Andrea told Judge Fred Pierantoni. “Walter didn’t understand moderation. I don’t think he thought he was doing anything wrong.”
As part of Griffith’s plea agreement with the state Attorney General’s Office, he had to waive a preliminary hearing, resign from serving as the county’s controller, remove his name from the ballot for the November election and agree not to seek office during his probationary period.
“Today is a sad day for Walter,” D’Andrea said. “He is terribly remorseful … he has been humiliated and has taken his medicine. He’s accepted responsibility.”
Prosecutors allege Griffith recorded three conversations:
• A July 2010 phone call with county pension fund officials and attorneys;
• An August 2010 retirement board executive session;
• A March 2011 phone call with Y. Judd Shoval, a member of the nonprofit CityVest board that owns the Hotel Sterling property in Wilkes-Barre. Last month the condemned structure was demolished after CityVest failed to secure a developer.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony Forray said his office was staying mute on a recommendation for Griffith’s sentencing. The misdemeanor charges carry a maximum of two years in prison on each charge.
Griffith said nothing before being sentenced and did not respond to reporters’ questions after Tuesday’s hearing.
D’Andrea said if Griffith was trying to hide something, he wouldn’t have handed over the conversations to federal investigators and that Griffith wants to “move on” with his life and continue with his auto repair business in Nanticoke.
“He loved what he did … and he could really over do it,” D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea said Griffith’s actions were not malicious or harmful and that no real damage was done by Griffith recording the conversations.
“The county (has suffered) bigger black eyes … that I’ve been involved with,” D’Andrea said, alluding to other public officials being charged with corruption. “This one will heal quicker.”
When asked if Griffith will seek election after his probation is over, D’Andrea said public service is in his client’s blood, but that it is possible Griffith’s perspective will change on serving the public.
Griffith must still face a civil suit filed by Shoval surrounding the recorded conversations.
Shoval says in the suit Griffith recorded a March 29 telephone conversation without Shoval’s knowledge or consent. Shoval seeks damages for violation of the state wiretap law and invasion of privacy.
Attorneys who were appointed to represent Griffith in the case recently filed court papers asking for the lawsuit to be thrown out.
A judge has not yet set a hearing date or ruled on the attorney’s request.