Carolee Medico Olenginski was at a Luzerne County government event in March 1999 when she and other elected officials were summoned together for a photo commemorating “National Women’s History Month.”
She refused to participate and reiterated her complaint about spending tax dollars on a private photographer before leaving the room.
Another elected official described Medico Olenginski’s behavior as embarrassing, but her actions contributed to the eventual decision to stop paying an outside photographer.
Medico Olenginski, a two-term county prothonotary running for county controller, brought up the event as an example of her willingness to stand up and change questionable county practices.
“The easy thing would have been to get in the picture and smile, especially when the whole room is going along with it, but I can’t do that if I know something is wrong and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Medico Olenginski said. “It’s very, very hard to buck the system when you’re standing alone and people are belittling you. It takes a lot out of you.”
Though she may appear to seek out and even enjoy confrontation, the Wright Township resident said she’s tossed and turned many nights and went to morning Mass praying for strength to put herself out there and expose problems — a trait she says is essential for the controller.
She believes federal corruption charges against several past county judges and officials in recent years could have been exposed sooner if more people who worked in and for county government stood up. Medico Olenginski chafes at sentiment that harmony among elected officials is healthy.
“Go along to get along — that’s not what good government is about,” Medico Olenginski said. “You have to rock the boat if it deserves to be rocked.”
A Republican, Medico Olenginski was first elected county prothonotary — the overseer of civil court records — in 1998.
Democrat Jill Moran, an attorney, spent $265,000 on a campaign to unseat Medico Olenginski, promising to end the “negativity.”
Moran and Medico Olenginski faced off again in 2005, but Moran won a second term. Medico Olenginski regained her seat in in 2009 when she beat Nancy McGinley Bellas in the prothonotary race. Moran had resigned earlier that year as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.
Medico Olenginski is the county’s last elected prothonotary because the elected post was phased out the end of this year under home rule.
County Manager Robert Lawton told Medico Olenginski to stay home in September 2012 after the two disagreed over her responsibilities under home rule.
Has her critics
Some workers and county watchers celebrated the ejection of a county official they described as an obstructionist while others objected to the ejection of an experienced and outspoken taxpayer advocate.
Medico Olenginski has publicly described Lawton as a “dictator” but said she doesn’t hold grudges and is willing to work with anyone if she’s elected.
“We don’t want to make home rule a dictatorship, and without a true watchdog, that’s what it will be,” he said.
She said she checks her facts and consults with other counties and legal experts before she speaks and tries to gives people involved an opportunity to investigate or correct problems themselves before publicly disclosing an issue — an approach she would use as controller.
“But if they shut the door on me, I am willing to go public, though I always try to find a solution and know how a situation should be resolved before I go public,” she said. “I have a passion about making things right.”
During her first prothonotary term, Medico Olenginski said she used her skills to transform the office into one of the most “updated, well-organized, productive, profitable offices in county government.” She also added security controls to prevent the mishandling of funds and said revenue nearly doubled when she left the office in 2002.
Medico Olenginski said her successor removed the security systems, causing revenues to drop drastically and allowing an employee to embezzle funds.
She installed software programs allowing online public assess to civil court records and electronic filing by attorneys and litigants during her second term. Medico Olenginski also said she uncovered and reported $1 million in questionable expenses from a county record improvement fund.
“I would come into this job ready to work from day one. I’m aware of where the skeletons are,” said Medico Olenginski, who was appointed to run by county Republican Party leaders Aug. 18 after incumbent former controller Walter Griffith pulled out of the race.