Pa. fire chief pleads guilty to stealing $45K from fire dept.

Three months ago the chief said he and nothing to hide and investigators could 'bring it on'

By Bob Kalinowski
The Citizens' Voice

SCRANTON, Pa. — Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Yuknavich has agreed to plead guilty to stealing about $45,000 from his volunteer fire department and must soon resign his post, according to a plea agreement he has reached with federal prosecutors.

Yuknavich will plead guilty to a charge of stealing from programs that receive federal funds, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, according to court documents.

The 50-year-old, who was already facing state theft charges for stealing from the department, is accused of skimming from checks from Wilkes-Barre Township intended to cover the fire department's mortgage and other bills. As a result of the impending federal plea, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said her office plans to drop the state charges against Yuknavich.

"I can't talk to ya," Yuknavich said while leaving the federal courthouse in Scranton on Thursday afternoon.

Yuknavich, accompanied by his federal public defender, Ingrid S. Cronin, was believed to be in court for a meeting with federal prosecutors.

Cronin declined to comment.

State prosecutors previously indicated a federal grand jury was investigating Yuknavich for theft-related offenses.

The charges come less than three months after Yuknavich said he had nothing to hide and challenged federal prosecutors to "bring it on."

Federal prosecutors on Thursday filed a criminal information against Yuknavich in conjunction with the plea agreement.

The information says that Luzerne County and Wilkes-Barre Township each received more than $10,000 in federal assistance each year from 2008 through 2011, and that as fire chief of the Wilkes-Barre Township Volunteer Fire Department, Yuknavich was responsible for receiving the money as well as other funds from charity and the state.

Yuknavich was supposed to deposit the money into the bank for use by the fire department for official purposes, the information says.

From 2008 through 2011, Wilkes-Barre Township gave monthly checks of $3,500 to the fire department to cover its mortgage and other bills, the information says. But Yuknavich "embezzled, stole obtained by fraud and otherwise without authority" more than $5,000 from the department, according to prosecutors.

He did so by only depositing a portion of each $3,500 check into the bank, while taking the rest in cash for his own benefit, prosecutors said.

The plea agreement filed Thursday says Yuknavich faces up to 10 years in prison and that prosecutors will not make any recommendation for the length at sentencing. As part of the plea, Yuknavich will repay $45,000 in restitution.

He is also ordered to resign his post as fire chief within 10 days of entering his plea, although he is permitted to remain a member of the department. He will be banned from serving public office for five years or the length of his probation, whichever is longer.

Wilkes-Barre Township resident Joseph Naperkowski, who in October 2009 sued Yuknavich in county court for defamation, said he has been alleging wrongdoing in township government for years and that he hopes the case "snowballs" to get others who have abused the taxpayers' trust out of local government.

"I have no compassion or feelings for this guy of feeling sorry for him in any way shape or form," Naperkowski said. "This guy's been doing this for ... years, with his feet up in the air, sitting in the fire house. I blame (Wilkes-Barre Township) Mayor Carl Kuren for that, for letting him stay in there."

In an interview on his front porch Thursday afternoon, Kuren said if Naperkowski was so concerned about the situation he should have joined the department to keep an eye on it.

Kuren said he thought Yuknavich otherwise did a good job and called the situation "very disappointing," but he added that there was little he could have done because the volunteer fire department is a separate entity from the township government. The township writes the department monthly checks, and the department then takes ownership of the money, he said.

"That's their check, that's not ours," Kuren said. "How can we request an audit when it's theirs once we give it to them? As long as we account for it on our side — what do you expect?"

The township pays for the mortgage, utilities and buys equipment, but does not pay for personnel, he said. The arrangement allows the township to get fire protection for about $100,000 per year, compared to more than $1 million to staff an in-house department, he said.

The $3,500 monthly payments to the fire department are in the budget and have been approved by the township council, he said.

"There are no shady deals here," Kuren said.

Yuknavich, whose mother, Mary, is a longtime Wilkes-Barre Township councilwoman and political figure, served on the township public works crew for many years. After several run-ins with the law, critics often demanded he be disciplined, but township leaders said they couldn't punish him for conduct outside of work. Yuknavich resigned from the township public works crew in March 2012 to pursue other work.

The announcement of Yuknavich's plea comes after he summoned a reporter to the fire house Monday evening, promising to have documentation about improper conduct of another township employee.

Yuknavich and another man each were drinking a beer and smoking cigarettes in the fire hall throughout the reporter's visit. Yuknavich handed over documents he claims were part of a police investigation into a township employee years ago.

He claimed that every time he has run afoul of the law he tries to get investigators to further look into the issue, but they refuse.

On Tuesday, Yuknavich again called the reporter, requesting he return the documents because "I need them for Thursday." He had previously said he was intending to show the documents to federal officials.

The Citizens' Voice continues to review the documents, though several investigators have said the issue, regarding township computer use, was reviewed already and no crimes occurred.

State officials had been investigating Yuknavich over financial issues since July 2006 when the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement cited the Firemen's Inn, a bar/restaurant operated by the fire department, for failure to maintain complete and truthful financial records.

Yuknavich was first arrested in December 2011, and was arrested again last year.

Five days after his first arrest, fire department members unanimously voted to reappoint Yuknavich chief.

Danny Harkenreader, who was identified as the department's spokesman at the time, didn't respond Thursday to a message seeking comment on Yuknavich's planned guilty plea.

In February 2013, a jury had already been selected to hear Yuknavich's first case on allegations he wrote himself $11,865 in fire department checks and spent $3,706 on the fire company's Sam's Club credit card. But the trial was halted after a prosecutor demanded a judge's recusal and that same judge held the prosecutor in contempt of court. That trial remained on hold as prosecutors appealed a judge's ruling about evidence.

While preparing for that case, prosecutors said they determined Yuknavich failed to deposit $48,712 into the fire department's account between 2008 and 2012, police said. Yuknavich was arrested on second set of charges on Aug. 6, 2013.

Yuknavich's trial was delayed more than a year, prompting defense attorney Barry Dyller to file a motion earlier this month seeking to have the charges dropped because Yuknavich's right to a speedy trial had been infringed.

Salavantis said Thursday that her office intends to withdraw the state charges against Yuknavich based on his decision to plead guilty to the federal charge.

Yuknavich is slated to enter his plea on Sept. 25 in federal court in Scranton before U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik.

Jacob Seibel, staff writer, contributed to this report.


(c)2014 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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