The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 8, 2013

Colleagues rebuke commissioner

Betta alleges cover-up at county jail

Randy Griffith
rgriffith@tribdem.com

SOMERSET — His fellow elected officials blasted Somerset County Commissioner Joe Betta over what they believe are unfounded allegations of misconduct at the county jail.

“It is unfortunate that a member of the prison board has publicly made allegations that impugn the integrity of the warden without adequate justification,” a letter delivered to Betta on Monday reads. It was signed by prison board members John Vatavuk and Pamela Tokar-Ickes, both county commissioners, and Sheriff John Mankey and District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser.

“The prison board members hereby rebuke the commissioner (Betta) for his unfounded accusations and apologize to the warden for his actions.”

The letter was fired off after Betta accused prison officials of covering up allegations of employee sexual harassment. Betta’s accusations were made during the Oct. 1 prison board meeting and expanded on during Betta’s comments to a reporter following the meeting, Lazzari-Strasiser said.

Betta said he had evidence that jail Warden Greg Briggs did not turn over all information to Somerset Borough police during their investigation earlier this year. The probe began after Betta raised concerns he heard while interviewing jail employees about a new health care plan.

Borough police in June charged former guard Ronald Edward Lensbouer, 44, of Friedens, with sexual assault and harassment. He is awaiting trial on the accusations, which include putting his hands down the pants and yanking on the underwear of two female guards he supervised.

Last week, Betta told a reporter he had a copy of a written statement given by an employee to Briggs. The statement, he said, was never given to police.

“There is no evidence that any information was withheld by the warden,” the board members’ letter read. “The warden categorically denies receiving any written report and no such report has ever been produced.”

On Tuesday, Betta dismissed his fellow jail board members’ criticism.

“What a horrible thing to do,” Betta said when told The Tribune-Democrat had received a copy of the letter.

Asked to clarify the comment, he said, “I am saying things are going to get worse before they get better with this issue.”

Betta again said he has a statement from an employee, but would not produce it because Briggs has not had a chance to respond to it.

He said he asked Briggs if he ever covered up or failed to report evidence of sexual harassment.

“He said ‘No’; end of story,” Betta said. “I’ve got a statement to the effect that he did (withhold). I am not ready to reveal it.”

Asked why he was accusing Briggs of a cover-up, but not providing the evidence he said he holds, Betta said:

“I don’t think it’s an accusation. That’s my point in letting him defend it first.”

Betta insists he is not out to have Briggs fired.

He said he is talking to his own attorney before he decides how to proceed.

“I am not going to take a step,” he said. “I am going to talk to the alleged victims and find out exactly what it is they want me to do with the information.

“There are victims out there that were totally ignored by more than one individual. It went on for months.”

Not so, say Lazzari-Strasiser and Mankey.

“Wholeheartedly and sincerely from my heart, I think it is unfounded and unjustified criticism,” Mankey said. “I feel that everything was done that had to be done.”

“I felt there was no room for interpretation of what he was alleging,” Lazzari-Strasiser said. “He was alleging that the warden was part of a cover-up. That was clearly not the case.”

She and the other prison board members rebuked Betta to show they stand behind the warden, Lazzari-Strasiser said.

“We all feel the same way,” Mankey said. “It is time to move on.”



Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.