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January 18, 2014

Repak indictment is just the latest in Johnstown’s checkered political past

JOHNSTOWN — Ousted Johnstown Redevelopment Authority director Ronald W. Repak’s federal indictment Tuesday on bribery and extortion charges, if proven, is the latest example in the region’s nefarious history of abuse at the top.

Elected officials at the city, state and national level are joined by appointed administrators such as Repak on a long list of disciplined and prosecuted leaders here.

Two names topping the list for most political observers were never charged, indicted or disciplined for their ethics.

They are longtime U.S. Rep. John Murtha and one-term Johnstown Mayor Charles “Kutch” Tomljanovic.

Murtha was most famously named as a co-conspirator in the 1980 Abscam scandal, the law enforcement sting that led to the conviction of 31 targeted officials, including one U.S. senator, Harrison A. Williams, R-N.J., and six members of the House.

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Murtha was never charged, but testified against two other members of the House. Videotape of the sting shows Murtha turning down a $50,000 bribe offer, but apparently leaving the door open to payments in the future.

“Murtha did not feel that the money was directly offered to him,” the FBI said in a recently released summary of Murtha’s responses to the agents’ questions.

Pizza-shop owner Charles “Kutch” Tomljanovic served one term as Johnstown mayor from 1978 to 1982, overseeing the 1977 flood recovery.

Tomljanovic freely admitted giving jobs, political appointments and preferential treatment to campaign contributors. His three appointees to the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority resigned, along with Repak’s predecessor, T. Fred Young, amid controversy alleging mishandling of flood-recovery funds. Nine people, including the former board chairman, Robert Audey, later pleaded guilty in the flood bid-rigging scandal.

Records published by The Tribune-Democrat at the time showed Tomljanovic’s top contributors included contractors and others associated with the redevelopment authority.

Tomljanovic, who died in 1988, was unapologetic for his favoritism.

“They gave me the power and the jobs,” Tomljanovic said several months after his defeat in the 1981 election. “If we could help our friends, we did.”

Tomljanovic was not the first controversial Johnstown mayor. Kenneth O. Tomkins resigned as mayor in 1971 after he and former City Council member J. Howard Deardorff pleaded guilty to federal bribery and conspiracy charges in the city’s cable television scandal. Councilman Robert McKee was also convicted.

The three were charged with sharing a $15,000 payoff from TelePromTer Corp. in return for an exclusive 10-year-contract franchise with a 10-year renewal option.

A Johnstown politician who served in the cabinets of Govs. George Leader and David Lawrence also ended up afoul of the law and his son did time as part of another infamous scandal.

John R. Torquato Sr. was convicted in 1978 and served 20 months on federal bribery charges after being convicted on 31 counts of extortion and conspiracy for squeezing contractors who did PennDOT work in Cambria County. Torquato was county Democratic chairman at the time. He was also acquitted the same year on 21 counts of mail fraud for allegedly having a county Democratic headquarters secretary on state and county payrolls.

The elder Torquato reigned for 36 years as Cambria County Democratic chairman and served on the National Democratic Committee. He rubbed shoulders with presidents and other state and national leaders from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, but also was considered a dictator who felt he could do no wrong. His nicknames included “Scare” and “Big John.”

His son, John R. Torquato Jr., pleaded guilty to bribing officials to get a plum contract for his company, Computer Technology Associates. He then testified in 1986 against state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer in the federal trial that led to Dwyer’s conviction for accepting a bribe. Torquato’s attorney, William Smith, also testified, but has since told documentary filmmakers he was lying.

Dwyer famously committed suicide during a Jan. 22, 1987, Harrisburg press conference, the day before his sentencing in federal court in Williamsport.

Six years later, Cambria County’s own Judge Joseph F. O’Kicki dropped out of sight instead of surrendering in March 1993 to begin serving a state prison sentence of two to five years for official corruption.

It turned out he had fled to Slovenia, his father’s birthplace, after secretly obtaining citizenship. Authorities were not able to extradite, and O’Kicki died in the former Yugoslavian republic’s city of Ljubljana on Dec. 2, 1996.

Family political scandals were not limited to the Torquatos.

Longtime Cambria County Commissioner Joseph P. Roberts was described by an opponent as on the “Torquato team.” He drew his share of controversy, but it was his son who found himself in trouble.

Justin Roberts stepped down as mental health-mental retardation administrator in May 1996 after a finding that he violated state ethics law by working for the county drunken driving program while on duty in another capacity.

Justin Roberts’ wife, Deborah L. Roberts, was fired from the Area Agency on Aging and placed in a program that allows first-time offenders to clear their records after she was charged with doctoring mileage records and time sheets.

Other appointed officials who ended up in hot water included the managers of the county airport and the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

Former War Memorial manager James L. Vautar pleaded guilty in July 2010 to five felony tax evasion charges. Federal authorities leading the investigation did not disclose the source of hundreds of thousands in unreported income, but the probe was launched after promoters complained they were cheated out of their fair shares from ticket sales.

William Santoro, John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport’s former manager, pleaded guilty in August 2000 to stealing nearly $10,000 in a credit card scam. Santoro was accused of using airport authority credit cards to get cash between 1994 and 1995.

Santoro’s offenses came at the same time airport authority treasurer Theodore Helsel Sr. was being ousted from the authority after pleading guilty to ethics violations for accepting more than $4,000 in gifts while a Greater Johns-town school board member. Helsel got a year’s probation and also lost his job with Johnstown Housing Authority.

Joseph McKelvey took over as airport manager after Santoro stepped down, but he was fired in September 2007 for mismanagement. Leaders found McKelvey had used $134,000 in federal project funds to pay for other airport expenses, leaving county taxpayers to pay more. He also was using the airport-purchased luxury SUV for personal use.

Greed is not the only vice that has brought down local leaders. Former State Sen. William J. Stewart lost his chance at a $48,900-a-year job on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board after being caught buying crack cocaine in a May 1997 Cambria County Drug Task Force operation in Johnstown.

Stewart voluntarily entered rehab and was given a year’s probation. The arrest came less than six months following his retirement after 20 years in Harrisburg, about 10 each as a senator and a representative.

At the national level, Murtha’s Abscam connection and a reputation for pork-barrel politics never interfered with his re-election bids. But it did not mark the end of his brushes with federal authorities. At the time of his death in February 2010, Murtha was a subject of the federal investigation that eventually led to the conviction of Windber businessmen Ron and William Kuchera, among others.

The Kuchera brothers pleaded guilty to major fraud against the government and conspiracy in April 2013. They were charged with claiming lobbying costs, hunting trips and a private airplane as business expenses paid out of government grants. Many of the grants benefiting Kuchera Industries were the product of Murtha-sponsored earmarks.

But Murtha was not the first area congressman to wear the King of Pork crown. Twenty years ago, it was at the throne of former Rep. Bud Shuster of Bedford County. Shuster reigned as the transportation funding king until he resigned in January 2001 in the wake of his own scandal.

Shuster had been reprimanded four months earlier by the House Ethics Committee for “serious official misconduct” that brought “discredit” to Capitol Hill. He was accused of accepting improper gifts and favoring a transportation lobbyist who was his former chief of staff.

Voters may not have been convinced, and promptly elected Bud Shuster’s son, Bill Shuster, in the February 2001 special election as the Republican nominee. The younger Shuster won his father’s former seat in May 2001 and continues to serve.

The Bud Shuster Highway and the Bud Shuster Byway remain as permanent tributes to the elder Shuster’s legacy.

It is not the only example of this region’s willingness to overcome scandal.

Barnesboro native J. Irving Whalley served 10 years in the U.S. House until he retired in 1972. The following year, Whalley pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, was fined $11,000 and served three years probation.

He was accused of taking staff salary kickbacks, but said the money was used for office purposes only. Bill Jones, a former political reporter for The Tribune-Democrat, said Whalley was “set up” by political enemies.

Whalley continued to be honored for more than 20 years after his death in 1980 with an annual fundraiser running event in his name in Windber, where he grew up. There is also the J. Irving Walley Memorial Chapel on the Pitt-Johnstown campus and J. Irving and Ruth A. Whalley Plaza at Mount Aloysius College near Cresson.

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

 

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