WILKES-BARRE -- Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith's efforts to assist a grand jury investigating the Hotel Sterling revitalization project may have been noble, but that won't save him from criminal prosecution if he illegally recorded conversations, several attorneys said.
Pennsylvania's wiretap law is strict in requiring all parties know a conversation is being recorded. An offender's intent in making the recording is irrelevant, the attorneys said.
Even if his motives were good, it doesn't matter. There are no exceptions for good motive, said Ernest Preate, a Scranton attorney and former state attorney general who has defended wiretap defendants.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis on Monday confirmed she had forwarded a complaint alleging Griffith violated the state's wiretap law to the state Office of Attorney General.
Salavantis said she became aware of alleged violations after federal agents supplied her copies of tape recordings Griffith, in replying to a subpoena, had allegedly made of conversations with multiple people connected to the Hotel Sterling project.
One of those conversations was with Judd Shoval, a member of the board of CityVest, a non-profit group that was working to revitalize the structure.
In a civil lawsuit filed Monday in county court, Shoval claims Griffith never advised him that a March 29 telephone call with Griffith was being recorded. Shoval learned of the recording in November, when county detectives played it for him as part of their investigation into Griffith's alleged violation of the wiretap law.
Salavantis said she referred the case to the Attorney General's Office several months ago. Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Griffith did not return a phone message Tuesday. In an interview Monday, he said he never recorded anyone without their permission.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that prohibit the secret recording of conversations with others. Violations carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison for each recording.
Since 1994, at least six people from Luzerne County have been charged with wiretapping. In several of the cases, the defendants maintained they were trying to expose wrongdoing.
While those motives may be just, citizens need to understand they must abide by the rules, said attorney Ralph Kates of Wilkes-Barre.
The wiretap laws were designed to protect people's right to privacy and to ensure they are not subjected to unwarranted search by law enforcement. They apply to private citizens and police, who must obtain a warrant before they can surreptitiously record a conversation.
Just because one citizen seems to think another citizen is doing something improper is not a basis to compromise the right of all of us, Kates said. If all a government agent needs to tape you is a personal belief you have done something wrong, you could lose your right to privacy. Most of the Bills of Rights would fall at the whim of a government agent.
Attorney Mike Butera of Pittston said the law must be strict and apply to everyone in every situation in order to be effective. To permit exceptions for good motives could lead to widespread abuse.
When one person knows a conversation is being recorded and the other person doesn't, the other person is at an extreme disadvantage, Butera said. I can make self-serving statements or try to set the other person up, get them to say something in jest that could come across as serious on the recording. There's too much room for abuse.
Butera noted there are alternatives if a person believes they've uncovered wrongdoing.
If you know someone is doing something illegal, go and tell law enforcement. They can get a court order to have you wear a body wire, he said.