Westmoreland sheriff’s office target of 2 probes by outside law firms

Updated 5 minutes ago

Two outside law firms were hired Thursday by Westmoreland County commissioners to investigate claims made against the sheriff’s office and the department’s second in command.

“This could be a tremendous expense,” said Commissioner Ted Kopas.

Campbell Durrant Beatty Palombo and Miller of Pittsburgh will probe allegations of civil rights violations raised this month by job applicants seeking positions in the sheriff’s office.

A second firm, Thomas, Thomas & Hafer, based in Harrisburg with an office in Pittsburgh, will investigate harassment allegations brought against an assistant county solicitor during questioning in the original civil rights complaint.

Both firms will be paid on an hourly basis, with rates ranging from $105 to $195 per hour. There is no cap on spending, commissioners said.

“The sheriff’s recklessness continues to cost taxpayers directly,” Kopas said.

Sheriff Jonathan Held, a Republican, took office in 2012.

Commissioners earlier this month launched an investigation into the sheriff’s office after receiving a series of complaints that job applicants were being discriminated against because of their race.

Specifically, the allegations focused on Held and his chief deputy, Patricia Fritz.

Commissioners said county officials received complaints from a lawyer representing two African-American job applicants who claimed they were denied positions in the sheriff’s office because of their race.

A current deputy lodged a complaint against Fritz, alleging he was discriminated against in the office because he is black, commissioners have said.

Commissioners asked that Fritz, 63, of Mt. Pleasant be suspended pending the outcome of the internal probe, but Held rejected that request.

A day after Fritz was questioned as part of that probe, she filed a complaint claiming she was inappropriately touched during questioning by a male assistant solicitor. Held granted her an indefinite leave of absence under the county’s family leave policy, citing mental anguish related to that incident.

“This is an investigation. A conclusion hasn’t been made,” said Commissioner Charles Anderson.

Held on Thursday again denied that he or anyone on his office’s leadership team committed any civil rights violations.

“We don’t discriminate for race, gender, religion, creed, or for anything,” Held said.

Since Held was elected, about a half-dozen lawsuits filed by current and former staffers in state and federal court alleged that he and his administration engaged in discrimination. Commissioners have paid more than $100,000 to settle at least four of the lawsuits, including an $85,000 payment in 2013 to a former deputy who alleged age discrimination.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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