Pennsylvania high court reviews fine in case that could rewrite nepotism rules

Mark Scolforo
Associated Press
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HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s highest court will determine whether the head of a township roadwork crew in the Poconos should have to pay $30,000 over approving timecards for his son, in a case that could alter the state’s anti-nepotism rules.

The state Supreme Court said Tuesday it will review the case of John P. Sivick, who was ordered to pay the money even though the financial benefits from his actions were paid to his son, J. Justin Sivick, who goes by Jay.

The justices will consider whether the timecard approval was an impermissible conflict of interest under Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act and whether restitution is allowed.

Robert Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, the entity that levied the fine against the former Lehman Township supervisor and public works director in Pike County, said the commission has long viewed the type of conduct John Sivick engaged in as a violation.

“I’ve been with the commission for 37 years, and … the commission has consistently found that type of conduct to be a violation of the act. This is the first time it’s been looked at by the courts,” Caruso said.

Sivick’s lawyer, Edmund Healy, said his client routinely approved timecards for the crew he supervised for years before his son Jay was hired by the other supervisors.

“It seems to me if he’s doing what he’s always done, the kid is just a subclass of all the other employees under his supervision – this is what supervisors do,” Healy said. “My belief is that the Ethics Act requires something that says the kid got something for which he is not entitled.”

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The ethics commission received a complaint in 2015 about John Sivick, an elected township supervisor since 1994 and the longtime public works and road crew manager.

In 2009, the township adopted an anti-nepotism policy that prohibited anyone from taking a job that would be supervised by a member of their immediate family. Three years later, John Sivick began asking his fellow supervisors about hiring Jay Sivick, and in 2013 the anti-nepotism policy was eliminated.

John Sivick abstained from that vote, and Jay Sivick was hired later that year as a $15-an-hour laborer, part of the nine-person public works crew. An ethics commission lawyer wrote earlier this year in a brief to the Supreme Court that John Sivick created the job for his son.

“One of the reasons Sivick wanted his son to work for the township was that he had been going through some rough times in his personal life, and Sivick wanted to try to get his son on the right path,” commission lawyer Jeffery Frankenburger wrote in March.

John Sivick voted as supervisor to approve payrolls during his son’s tenure working for the township, and signed 79 of his 81 timesheets. Jay Sivick, who was fired three years later, did not appear to have a listed phone number.

The State Ethics Commission ruled in February 2018 that John Sivick improperly benefited by using his authority to get the nepotism policy eliminated, effectuating the hiring of his son and signing his timesheets. The commission ordered the $30,000 in restitution be paid to the state’s general fund.

In January, Commonwealth Court upheld the restitution order, saying John Sivick’s discussions about eliminating the nepotism policy and hiring his son were made in his capacity as a Lehman Township official and employee.

“Sivick initiated the improper scheme to have the township’s nepotism policy repealed and his son hired, which directly resulted in the township employing his son and Sivick approving his son’s payroll records,” wrote Judge Anne Covey for the three-judge panel.

Healy told the Supreme Court in a March brief that the lower court panel’s decision to uphold the restitution was an attempt “to create or affirm a funding mechanism for the State Ethics Commission outside the legislative scheme” and called it “an excessive punitive sanction.”