Police: Former judge stole cocaine in Pennsylvania before he was hired in Alaska

Daily News staff and wire reportsMay 23, 2013 

Former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky heads into Washington County Court in Washington, Pa. on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Online court records say Pozonsky was arraigned on 15 counts including theft and obstructing the administration of law. Pozonsky was a Washington County Common Pleas judge when he announced in June of 2012 that he would retire the next day, after 15 years on the bench. (AP Photo/Observer Reporter-Katie Toupe)

KATIE TOUPE — AP

A former Pennsylvania judge stole cocaine from court evidence envelopes before he resigned and was hired by the Alaska Department of Labor, according to charges filed Thursday.

The charges, based on a grand jury investigation conducted by Pennsylvania state police, provided a long-delayed explanation for Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky's abrupt and mysterious departure from the bench in that state. In Alaska, the felony indictment returns the spotlight to Pozonsky's controversial hire and brief employment last year by the Division of Workers' Compensation.

The fact that Pozonsky was under investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office had already been reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review when Pozonsky was hired as a hearing officer in Alaska.

Pozonsky resigned from the Alaska job Dec. 6 after Daily News columnist Shannyn Moore and a reporter for the newspaper raised questions about the hire. The brother-in-law of former Alaska public safety commissioner Chuck Kopp, Pozonsky had been living and working in Pennsylvania for decades. Yet the hearing officer job he was hired for was posted on the state's online recruitment website as open to "Alaska Residents Only."

The Labor Department, which includes the Division of Workers' Compensation, conducted an internal investigation into the hiring but state officials would say little about the results of that probe Thursday, citing personnel confidentiality rules. The review led to unspecified changes to the vetting process for candidates, a spokeswoman said.

Pozonsky, 57, is charged with 15 criminal counts, including theft and obstructing the administration of law.

He was a Common Pleas judge in western Pennsylvania when he announced June 29 of last year that he would retire the next day after 15 years on the bench. He had served as a magisterial district judge -- similar to a justice of the peace in many other states -- for 13 years before that.

Pozonsky left the bench a month after Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca abruptly reassigned Pozonsky, who handled most of the county's criminal cases, to preside only over civil court cases.

Seneca made the move after Pozonsky ordered the destruction of evidence in 16 criminal drug cases.

Pozonsky withdrew that order after county prosecutors pointed out that defendants had due process rights regarding their property, but evidence was already destroyed.

State police investigators, acting on Seneca's orders, examined the evidence in drug cases Pozonsky handled and found "cocaine was either missing or had been tampered with," according to a news release issued Thursday.

The state police investigation determined that in May 2011, Pozonsky began insisting that police bring drug evidence to his courtroom, where the judge or his staff retained the drugs. A grand jury report detailed the judge's unusual behavior in handling drug evidence.

The grand jury found that Pozonsky would often require police to bring drug evidence with them to pretrial hearings -- one officer told the grand jury it was the only time in 14 years he had ever been asked to do that by a judge -- and then insist that the drugs be stored in the judge's chambers instead of being returned to a police evidence locker.

In several cases, state police investigators found cocaine was missing after they compared crime lab reports about drugs that had been tested and the amounts later found in evidence envelopes stored in a locked file cabinet in Pozonsky's chambers. In some instances, the cocaine had been replaced by other white powders that didn't contain drugs and, in one instance, police were able to match DNA found on a baggie inside an evidence envelope to Pozonsky.

In one case involving nearly seven ounces of cocaine, state police found just three ounces remaining in the evidence envelope, although some of the missing cocaine had been replaced by other white powders, including baking soda, the grand jury found.

Pozonsky announced he was taking a two-week vacation to Alaska, where he has family, after his resignation.

Then, in October, Pozonsky was hired by the Alaska Division of Workers' Compensation as a hearing officer.

Alaska Labor Commissioner Dianne Blumer wrote in December that the state recruitment process "appears to have failed" in Pozonsky's hiring. A department spokeswoman would say little about the case Thursday, citing confidentiality laws.

"The decision to hire was made by a hiring manager in the Workers' Compensation Division. At the time, proper review and employment checks were not performed before Mr. Pozonsky's hiring," Labor spokeswoman Beth Leschper wrote in an email.

The department conducted an internal investigation of the hiring, but the outcome of that review is also secret under personnel confidentiality rules, she wrote. Following the investigation, "some procedures were modified to ensure due diligence in vetting applicants," Leschper wrote.

Asked by email what hiring policies, specifically, were changed as a result of the investigation, Leschper did not reply or return phone calls. An automatic email reply message said she would be out of the office until June 3.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell would not answer questions about the case Thursday, including whether Parnell believes failure to vet candidates is a widespread problem in the state and whether Pozonsky was given special consideration for the job because of personal connections to current or former state employees. The spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, referred all inquires to the Labor Department.

Pozonsky's wife, Sara, is a politically connected third-generation Alaskan. Her brother, Chuck Kopp, briefly served as then-Gov. Sarah Palin's public safety commissioner. Kopp is now an aide to state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River. Sara and Trish Kopp, Chuck's wife, have a seafood business, Wild Alaskan Salmon Co.

No one answered the door at the couple's South Anchorage home on Thursday. Paul Pozonsky was allowed to remain free until a preliminary hearing June 13.

This story was reported by Associated Press reporter Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh and Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage.

 

 

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