VA nurse Pieri, accused of assisting in surgery while drunk, has troubled past

Drums resident accused of assisting in surgery while drunk

In October 1985, Richard J. Pieri was charged in the hit-and-run death of a veteran near the Wilkes-Barre VA Hospital.

Now, 30 years later, he’s facing reckless endangerment charges after allegedly staggering into that same hospital and aiding in emergency surgery as an operating room nurse after drinking four or five beers at Mohegan Sun Pocono casino. The 59-year-old Drums resident faces DUI and public drunkenness charges as well.

And while there was no mention of suspected alcohol use by Pieri in archived Times Leader stories about the hit-and-run death, Pieri’s estranged wife has pointed to his alleged alcohol use in a Protection From Abuse application she filed last year, claiming that he had been abusive to her after he had been drinking.

To top it off, although police say Pieri admitted to being drunk while on call, it will take the VA Medical Center up to nine months to dole out disciplinary action such as termination from his job, the Times Leader learned Tuesday.

It took police just nine days to investigate and charge Pieri in the death of 65-year-old George Knorr in 1985.

The hit-and-run

According to Times Leader archives, Knorr, of Scranton, died after he was struck by a vehicle the night of Sept. 25. The Luzerne County coroner determined the cause of death to be a broken neck, and the manner of death a homicide.

A day after the accident, police seized a red pickup at the Wilkeswood Apartments in Wilkes-Barre Township and said they had a suspect in Knorr’s death. They said the suspect did not turn himself in, but was cooperating. Police were awaiting test results to see if there was a match between the paint on the pickup and paint found on Knorr’s body.

Pieri was arrested on Oct. 3, 1985, and charged with an accident involving death or personal injury — a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and/or a year in jail.

Township police considered lodging a charge of vehicular homicide or manslaughter, but they determined the death was not the result of gross negligence, an officer had told the Times Leader.

The officer said Knorr, 65, of Scranton, was wearing dark clothing and was walking close to the roadway at about 10:50 p.m. in a dimly lit area when he was struck. The officer also said Pieri had not been driving recklessly.

Pieri posted $5,000 bail and waived his right to a preliminary hearing. The charges were forwarded to Luzerne County Court, but the outcome of the case could not be determined Tuesday. A search for court records proved fruitless.

The protection order

The only court records that could readily be found for Pieri — other than a 2014 speeding ticket to which he pleaded guilty — was a Protection From Abuse order dated Oct. 26, 2015.

Pieri’s wife, Judy, petitioned the court for the order, claiming that Pieri “apparently had been drinking” on the evening of Oct. 23 and, when she arrived home from a dinner with relatives, thought he was sleeping.

Judy Pieri wrote in the application that she checked her husband’s cellphone and wallet “to try to check what he had been up to” because “he tells me nothing and I find myself snooping just to get information.” But, apparently, Pieri was awake and angry that she disturbed his wallet and cellphone, she wrote.

Judy Pieri alleged that her husband pushed and shoved her down a hallway, that the two of them struggled and that her husband twice told her he would kill her. She wrote that Richard pushed her into a chair and that she kicked him away using both legs, causing him to drop to the ground and fracture one of his wrists.

A judge ordered Pieri to turn over firearms that his wife had said were stored in a bedroom closet, but they were returned to him after a subsequent hearing he requested on the matter.

Pieri’s wife hung up on a reporter when he called her and identified himself as a journalist.

Pieri did not personally return a message seeking comment on Tuesday, but his attorney, Kim Borland, returned the call and left a message for the reporter. There was no answer at the office number Borland left and he did not return a subsequent message left on his cellphone voice mail.

The discipline process

As to what’s next for Pieri, a summons was issued for him to appear before District Judge Joseph D. Spagnuolo Jr. on March 29 for a preliminary hearing on the reckless endangerment, DUI and public drunkenness charges.

In the meantime, Pieri, who has been licensed as a registered nurse since March 1979, remains employed by the VA Medical Center pending administrative action, although not in a patient care position.

The Times Leader on Tuesday acquired an email from the Department of Veterans Affairs outlining the process.

According to the email, the VA can take “a major adverse action that is appealable to a Disciplinary Appeals Board” related to alleged employee misconduct. A major adverse action includes a suspension, transfer, reduction in grade, reduction in basic pay, and discharge.

After all evidence is obtained and an investigation is complete, a proposal notice must be drafted by Human Resources, and is typically reviewed by District Counsel before it’s issued to the employee. The employee has seven to 30 days to respond in writing, and the VA must issue a written decision within 21 days of the employee’s response. The employee has 30 days to appeal the decision. If that happens, a Disciplinary Appeals Board is appointed and has 120 days to conduct a hearing and issue a report. The Under Secretary for Health or Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health has 90 days to review the report and issue a decision to the appellant, the email states.

The entire appeals process can take up to 270 days.

That doesn’t sit well with U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“Almost every day we are reminded that the federal civil service system is designed to coddle and protect corrupt and incompetent employees and that the Obama administration’s refusal to address this dysfunctional status quo is doing real harm to veterans and taxpayers,” Miller said in a prepared statement.

“The latest installment in this depressing saga is VA’s confirmation that it will take nearly a year at a minimum to discipline Pieri for something he’s already admitted to. Enough is enough,” Miller said.

Miller said it’s time for VA to “get behind commonsense congressional proposals like the House-passed VA Accountability Act, which would enable VA to quickly purge corrupt and incompetent employees from the payroll and prevent convicted felons from sneaking out the back door with full taxpayer-funded pensions.”

“Until then, situations like this, in which taxpayers are forced to subsidize bad behavior, will only continue,” Miller said.

The VA Accountability Act would give the VA secretary the authority to swiftly fire or demote any employee for poor performance or misconduct while protecting whistleblowers and limiting the agency’s ability to place misbehaving employees on paid leave. It would also give VA the ability to recover annuities on pensions of VA employees convicted of felonies committed on the job. It passed the House in July 2015 and is pending in the Senate.
Drums resident accused of assisting in surgery while drunk

By Steve Mocarsky

[email protected]

Reach Steve Mocarsky at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @TLSteveMocarsky.

Reach Steve Mocarsky at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @TLSteveMocarsky.

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