An Alaska workers' compensation hearing officer who started work for the state in October resigned suddenly Thursday, days after a Daily News columnist raised questions about politics in the hiring process and the same day a reporter contacted a Labor Department official for answers.
Paul Pozonsky, 57, came to the post from Pennsylvania, where he had served as a judge for 14 years but quit in June under an investigative cloud, a departure extensively covered by Pennsylvania news media. Among other issues, he had ordered the destruction of evidence in 17 criminal cases, which the local district attorney called "highly unusual," according to news reports.
Efforts to reach him late Friday were unsuccessful.
Pozonsky's wife is the former Sara Crapuchettes, whose brother is Chuck Kopp, an aide to Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, and once the pick of then-Gov. Sarah Palin to serve as her public safety commissioner. Pozonsky stayed in the state job almost two months, longer than the 14 days Kopp lasted as public safety commissioner, before resigning amid allegations of sexual harassment in a previous job.
On Sunday, columnist Shannyn Moore told Alaskans about the peculiar hiring of Pozonsky, writing that the application process had been closed, candidates had been interviewed and a hiring decision appeared imminent.
"Then something happened," she wrote. "The application process was re-opened, a new application arrived, and a late applicant, Paul Pozonsky, got hired."
In Pennsylvania, Pozonsky drew attention for unusual courtroom tactics. Back in 2000, he played the Christian country song, "The Little Girl," at a death-penalty sentencing of a woman convicted of starving her daughter.
In May, he ordered the destruction of evidence in 17 criminal cases. The district attorney for Washington County, Gene Vittone, filed a motion to halt the destruction, saying that some of the evidence was personal property and that normally local law enforcement rules guided evidence destruction.
"It's highly unusual. That's what caught our attention. We had no idea what property was involved," Vittone told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in July.
But the evidence already had been destroyed, according to paperwork filed by Pozonsky.
On May 31, the presiding judge for Washington County Court of Common Pleas, Debbie O'Dell Seneca, removed Pozonsky from hearing any criminal cases.
Pozonsky and his wife then left for a two-week vacation to Alaska, according to a local news report. Sara Pozonsky is the granddaughter of Alaska homesteaders whose late father started Christian schools here. She and her sister-in-law -- Trish Kopp, who also is an aide to Dyson -- run a seafood business, Wild Alaskan Salmon Company.
Pozonsky, who earned $169,541 as a judge, resigned from the bench June 29. His Alaska salary was about $80,000 a year, according to the Department of Administration.
Pozonsky also was the subject of a Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office investigation this year, a number of news outlets there reported. The status of that investigation couldn't be determined Friday evening.
Workers' compensation is a complex area of law in which people injured on the job seek pay for lost work time, medical benefits and help with rehabilitation or retraining for other work, said state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who served as a hearing officer from 1999 to 2004. In many states, judges oversee disputed cases, he said.
"One of the leading causes of bankruptcy are people who get hurt, who have huge medical bills," Wielechowski said. "In Alaska you have crazy cases: People whose trucks break down on the North Slope in 50 below zero and they get frostbite. People who get attacked by bears. Plane crashes."
About 30,000 workers' compensation cases are filed in Alaska a year, but only about 300 end up in formal hearings before a three-person panel that includes a hearing officer and two members of the state workers' comp board -- one from industry and one from labor, he said. Decisions in those disputed cases then become guides to those that follow, Wielechowski said.
State labor officials did not answer most questions submitted in writing by the Daily News on Thursday about how Pozonsky was hired and whether the application period was reopened for him to apply.
"Personnel records, including information about an applicant's interview and selection process, are confidential" under state law, Greg Cashen, assistant labor commissioner, said in an email.
At the end of the email, Cashen wrote "Mr. Pozonsky was appointed to the Hearing Officer I position on October 8, 2012, and resigned from the position on December 6, 2012." No other explanation was given for the resignation.
In the email to the Daily News, Cashen wrote that the decision to hire Pozonsky was made by the chief of workers' compensation adjudication, the official who oversees all the agency hearing officers. That job is held by Janel Wright, who previously served as legal director of the nonprofit Disability Law Center.
"The Chief did not seek -- and was not required to seek -- approval of this appointment from a higher level," Cashen said in the email.
Wielechowski scoffed at the assertion that the decision was Wright's.
"I find that hard to believe," he said. "I know her personally." He was on the committee that hired Wright and helped train her as a hearing officer before she was promoted, he said.
Reached by phone earlier this week, Wright said she was not authorized by higher-ups to discuss the matter.
Pozonsky's hiring caused quite a stir at the workers' comp agency, said Wielechow-ski, who remains in touch with his former co-workers.
Gov. Sean Parnell was not involved, his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said Friday evening. He doesn't know either Pozonsky or his wife, and "had no knowledge of his hire," Leighow said in an email.
Dept. of Labor email responding to questions from ADN reporter
By LISA DEMER