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Crossin snubs state ethics law

Democratic county commissioner acted inappropriately when he voted in January to pay $1,500 to his own insurance company.

Times Leader Staff Writer

WILKES-BARRE- Luzerne County Commissioner Frank Crossin violated a state ethics law when he voted in January to pay $1,500 to his own insurance company.

"You're probably right," Crossin said Tuesday, when told about the payments and law. "I didn't realize it."

Crossin is the president and secretary of the Frank P. Crossin Agency Inc., Kingston, and owns 65 percent of the company, according to a state form Crossin filed this year to spell out his financial interests.

Records show the county sent the agency two checks in January, totaling $1,531, to buy annual bonds for Register of Wills Dorothy "Dottie" Stankovic and seven tax collectors.

Bonds are a type of insurance the state requires some public officials to obtain. The county routinely picks up a portion of the cost for tax collectors and the entire cost for row officers.

Crossin said his insurance agency has been selling bonds to tax collectors and other public employees since before he took office 17 years ago. Most are his friends or friends of his late father, former county Commissioner Frank P. "Chink" Crossin.

The Public Official and Employee Ethics Law prohibits a public official from
voting on a matter involving his family, or a business with which he or his
family is associated with, because it could constitute "a conflict of

The checks to Crossin's agency were among 760 Crossin and fellow commissioners Tom Makowski and Joseph "Red" Jones approved Jan. 21. Crossin made the single motion to "ratify" payment of those checks.

Crossin should have abstained from voting "to keep himself squeaky clean," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause, a statewide lobbying group for good government.

"At the very least, I would have asked for an advisory opinion from the
Ethics Commission," Kauffman said.

The commission investigates complaints from the public, enforces the ethics law and also issues opinions to help guide public officials, said John
Contino, the agency's executive director.

Contino said Crossin has never asked for his agency's advice before.

"I certainly will do that," Crossin said. "I'm not trying to hide anything."

Crossin said he didn't realize there might be a problem because he doesn't
routinely check the bills before the commissioners vote to pay them at public meetings every two weeks.

Even if he had, records show the county cut and mailed the second of two
checks to his insurance agency on Jan. 20, a day before the board approved them.

At the meeting, the public got to see only the beginning and ending check
numbers of the checks being approved. There was no public debate or discussion of what any of the checks were for.

"I wouldn't run my organization that way," Kauffman said. "I don't write
the checks or do the paperwork. But I insist on seeing all of the bills before
they're paid."

Contino refused to answer specific questions on how the law might be applied to Crossin's company. Any county resident may file a complaint and the commission would be obligated to investigate.

In a similar 1994 case, the commission found a borough councilman committed a "technical violation" of the law by joining in unanimous votes on bill lists, which included payments to an insurance agency with which he was associated.

The council member was advised by the borough's solicitor that he could vote on the bills legally. Contino said the commission does not normally seek a criminal or civil penalty in cases where someone has unwittingly violated the law.

The commission could force a violator to repay the amount of money in question along with triple damages. It also can recommend a criminal investigation when it believes a violation was intentional.

The same section of the law resulted in one of several felony charges against former county Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Siracuse. He is accused of steering $48,000 worth of county contracts to a private company set up by Siracuse and two of his employees.

Siracuse also has been accused of another felony violation of the ethics law, for doing more than $500 worth of business with the government entity he worked for.

It is unclear if Crossin violated that portion of the law, though, because the
bills for bonding each of the individual officials ranged from $75 to $370,
and the county merely cut one check to pay for most of them.

David J. Ralis covers Luzerne County government.

Wednesday, Sept. 9, 1998