Tobacco incident incurs dismissal of 2 guards, discipline of 2 others
A total of four corrections officers were penalized.
MERCER, Pa. -- Two Mercer County Jail corrections officers have been dismissed and two others disciplined after a failure by the four to follow proper procedure at the jail for reporting an inmate's theft of tobacco from a jail guard.
The jail is smoke-free and tobacco is considered contraband.
Mercer County District Attorney James Epstein, president of the Mercer County Prison Board, said Sgt. Walter Weir was dismissed and has filed a grievance over his termination. The matter will go to arbitration.
Thomas Schaefer also was dismissed. A new employee, he was still on his six-month probation and as such was not a member of the Teamsters union that represents other employees. During the probation period, an employee can be dismissed at will.
Wayne Steen was suspended for five days without pay and Matt Ray, for 30 days without pay.
Epstein said Schaefer has found other employment, and Ray and Steen have indicated they will not contest the disciplinary action against them.
Epstein said the actions resulted from a May 15 incident when Steen went out to smoke on a break and forgot he left pipe tobacco in his jacket, which he brought back into the jail.
The tobacco was stolen and Steen reported the theft to Weir. It was later found in a search of cells.
Epstein saidWeir then instructed correctional officers not to prepare a report on the incident. The next day, administrators learned about it from an inmate comment and ordered Weir, Steen, Ray and Schaefer to make reports.
Epstein said the reports submitted by Weir and Ray were misleading and that neither stated that Weir had directed guards not to report the incident. Weir's report was also misleading on the question of why the incident had not been reported immediately, Epstein said. Ray and Steen told authorities they were ordered not to report the incident.
After an emergency prison board meeting, all four were initially suspended from their jobs. Schaefer was then terminated by a 4-2 vote because he recovered the tobacco but filed a report saying he did not. Epstein said.
Voting against termination were Mercer County Controller Thomas Amundsen and Mercer County Commissioner Brian Beader, who both indicated they felt the punishment was too harsh. Commissioner Olivia Lazor abstained on the vote after withdrawing an earlier motion to suspend Schaefer for 30 days. Other prison board members voted for the termination including Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Francis Fornelli, Epstein, Sheriff Bill Romine and Commissioner Michele Brooks.
Ray, who is also a probationary employee, was suspended for 30 days because he did not persist in filing an inaccurate report and eventually told the truth, Epstein said.
The prison board held a due process hearing Friday for Weir and Steen. The board voted 6-1 to dismiss Weir. Beader cast the dissenting vote and stated he did not believe the incident rose to the level of a firing offense, Epstein said.
Steen received the lightest penalty because while his reports were incomplete, they were not inaccurate, Epstein said. In addition, he accepted responsibility, expressed remorse, and gave the prison board a full and honest account of what happened, Epstein said.