Wagner's use of Wyoming Valley site for helicopter landing raises questions

Eric Mark
The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice

WILKES-BARRE — The owner of a company that lost its contract to provide security for the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority said the authority cut ties because she questioned Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner’s use of authority property to land his helicopter before a local political rally.

Wagner landed on a lawn outside of the authority’s Hanover Township sewage treatment facility on Aug. 26 so Wagner could attend a campaign event for Magisterial District Judge Joseph Halesey.

The authority has tried to cover up the helicopter landing, according to Tobie Jacobs, whose Maryland-based security firm, The Oceans Group, provided security officers to the authority the past four years. The authority moved to in-house security June 1.

Jacobs maintains the landing was improper, as Wagner was a partisan political candidate. Wagner, a state senator representing Spring Garden Township at the time, announced he was running for governor in January 2017.

Scott Wagner speaks at a campaign tour kickoff at one of his Penn Waste facilities Monday, July 10, 2017. During the next four to six weeks, Wagner is planning stops across the state to bolster his gubernatorial run. Bill Kalina photo

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Authority board members and Executive Director James Tomaine said there was no cover-up and the authority did nothing wrong.

They also said the authority board’s vote not to renew The Oceans Group’s contract was strictly a financial decision that will save at least $50,000.

Tomaine said there was never any secret that Wagner’s helicopter landed on authority grounds.

“I approved the landing as a courtesy to a sitting state senator,” Tomaine said.

He said he attended the landing, which occurred on a Saturday, and personally opened the gate to let cars in and out of the grounds. No authority resources were used, Tomaine said.

He said the landing request was made that morning, and there was no time to notify or seek approval from the authority board, whose 16 members are appointed by the municipal governments that formed the authority.

Board members were informed of the landing soon after it happened, according to Tomaine.

The board discussed the matter in an executive session regarding personnel on Sept. 19, according to authority solicitor William Finnegan.

State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, speaks to reporters Monday, June 4 after delivering his farewell address on the Senate floor. Wagner resigned to focus on his gubernatorial campaign. (David Weissman photo)

Jacobs, however, said some board members did not know about the landing for a long time.

“The helicopter incident was kept from the board members,” she wrote in an email. “Only a few of the board members were made aware. I was told, ‘It was not to be discussed.’”

Andrew Romeo, spokesman for Wagner’s campaign, said the campaign had no plans to issue a statement on the incident.

“It seems like the story confirmed that Scott had permission to land his helicopter there,” he said.

Jacobs said she learned of Wagner’s visit after one of her security workers found clues that someone had accessed the authority’s property that weekend.

Jacobs’ story: Security officers for the authority only worked on weekdays, Jacobs said.

One of the officers noticed on Monday, Aug. 28, that traffic cones in the authority’s parking lot had been moved since Friday, and someone had apparently opened and closed the gate, based on the position of the lock, she said.

The officer checked footage recorded that weekend by cameras that monitor the authority’s grounds, according to Jacobs. He observed an authority employee open the gate to the complex to let a fire truck enter, she said.

State Sen. Scott Wagner (left), R-Spring Garden Township, sitting on a charter plane set to takeoff in Harrisburg bound for Pittsburgh. (Photo by David Weissman/ The York Dispatch)

The security officer thought the fire department might have been called because of a faulty fire alarm, which had activated several times the previous week. When he asked the authority employee about it, the employee said there had been no false alarms over the weekend.

The security officer then told the employee what he had seen on the footage. The employee’s face “turned white” and he said something like “you should forget you saw that,” according to Jacobs.

“You don’t say that to a security officer,” Jacobs said.

Later, as the officer inspected the authority grounds, he noticed a white circle painted in the grass, with an “H” painted in the middle of the circle, according to Jacobs.

He then reviewed more security footage from Aug. 26, which showed two men painting the circle in the grass, Jacobs said. The footage showed a helicopter land, after which Wagner got out of the helicopter and several people greeted him, then the group drove away in a car, Jacobs said.

The officer contacted Jacobs, who said she began to compile a report on the incident.

Jacobs said she contacted Willard Oliphant, the authority’s personnel director and the man to whom she reported. He reviewed the surveillance footage, she said.

Jacobs said that when she asked to view the footage, she was told it had been erased in the process of uploading it to the authority’s computer system.

The authority’s story: Tomaine said he did not know what happened to the footage, but that it was a moot point, since no one denies that Wagner’s helicopter landed on authority property that day.

He disputed Jacobs’ contention that members of the authority board were kept in the dark about Wagner’s visit.

“We had discussions about what happened,” he said. “The board was advised. It was looked into, the board vetted it and had no problems with it.”

Board members Sam Guesto, of Hanover Township, and Tom Wall, of Nanticoke, agreed.

“The proper channels were looked into,” said Guesto, the board president. “Nothing happened that was prohibited.”

Wall said the board discussed the matter after someone — he said he did not know who — contacted the Federal Aviation Administration.

“After the fact, it was brought to our attention,” Wall said. “There was no FAA violation.”

Finnegan, the authority solicitor, said the board found no evidence that anything improper occurred, following its discussion at the Sept. 19 executive session.

Scott Wagner is congratulated during an election party May 15 at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in West Manchester Township after the announcement that he won the Republican gubernatorial primary.

The rest of the story: Hanover Township Fire Chief Joseph Temarantz confirmed that  his department was called to the sanitary authority’s property for the landing. That is a standard precautionary measure, Temarantz said.

Halesey said Wagner paid a brief visit to his campaign fundraiser, at the Breslau fire grounds in Hanover Township. Wagner left early, before many of the people who attended the event had arrived, according to Halesey.

Halesey said West Pittston Mayor Tom Blaskiewicz called him the morning of Aug. 26 to ask if he would mind if Wagner attended.

Tomaine identified Blaskiewicz as the man who called him to ask about a potential helicopter landing on authority property.

Blaskiewicz said Patrick “P.J.” Pribula, a former member of the sanitary authority board, called him that morning to ask about the possibility of Wagner’s helicopter landing at the authority. A member of Wagner’s staff had contacted Pribula, according to Blaskiewicz.
Blaskiewicz then called Halesey and Tomaine, to relay the message, he said.

Attempts to contact Pribula were unsuccessful.

Lynette Villano, a member of the Luzerne County Republican committee and a sanitary authority employee, posted photos of Wagner’s visit on her Facebook page, accessible to the public.

In one of the photos, she, Pribula and others pose with Wagner in front of his helicopter. Villano deferred comment to Tomaine.

Tomaine said the authority works with numerous legislators and elected officials, but before last summer, none of them had asked to land a helicopter on authority property.

The only previous helicopter landing Tomaine could recall involved a search for a missing homeless man, he said.

— Reach Eric Mark at emark@citizensvoice.com or 570-821-2117.