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Fired North Huntingdon officer can collect pension, keep police dog

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A longtime North Huntingdon police officer who was fired last week still will be able to collect a pension and, if he chooses to, keep his police dog, according to township officials.

Commissioners fired William Sombo, 54, of North Huntingdon on April 16.

Sombo, who had been suspended since March 26 by police Chief Andrew Lisiecki, declined to comment.

Officials have declined to cite the offenses that led to Sombo's dismissal, because it is a personnel matter. However, Lisiecki in March accused a then-unnamed officer of undermining his authority and causing division in the police department.

The vote was 4-2 to fire Sombo, who has served on the force for about 30 years and is a police-dog handler. Commissioner David Herold abstained.

“None of the offenses that led to the officer's termination would result in him losing his pension,” Commissioner Chairman Richard Gray said.

Police officers have to be convicted of a serious crime to jeopardize their pensions, and that likely would affect only the portion paid by their employer, township solicitor Craig Alexander said. Sombo has not been accused of a crime.

Detective Kirk Youngstead, president of the North Huntingdon Police Fraternal Relief Association, the union that represents the municipality's police officers, could not be reached for comment.

Youngstead has said that any personnel action can be challenged through the grievance process, which includes appealing disciplinary action to the township manager and then the commissioners. After that, an officer can seek arbitration.

Gray said Sombo would be allowed to keep his German shepherd partner, Colt, during the appeal process. If the firing is upheld, the department would make arrangements for Sombo to keep the dog.

In early March, Lisiecki asked commissioners to fire an officer because he was creating a “negative environment” in the department and that the problems he was having with the officer has “led to a division among members of the department and have led to a serious morale problem that I alone cannot fix.”

The chief did not name Sombo at the time.

Lisiecki, however, said the officer to whom he was referring was “upset because after doing everything personally and politically possible, he was not given the position of chief of police.”

Sombo was among the candidates considered for the chief's position before Lisiecki was hired.

Lisiecki said in March that during his first eight months as chief, he was the target of two internal investigations that were conducted at Sombo's urging. Lisiecki has said he was cleared of wrongdoing.

The chief also noted that the officer he wanted to fire was responsible for a third investigation launched against him after township police charged Herold with disorderly conduct in connection with a road-rage incident in October.

Herold, who was found not guilty of the charge by a district judge, said he would have voted against firing Sombo, but he abstained from taking action on the advice of his attorney.

Commissioner Tony Martino, who voted against the firing, predicted the case would go to arbitration.

“After looking at the unsubstantiated, alleged violations that the chief stated, I didn't see anything that warrants termination,” Martino said.

Problems between the chief and the officer “could have been resolved because officer Sombo was willing to retire in November,” he added.

Commissioner Donald Austin, who also voted against firing Sombo, said he might have supported suspending Sombo but disagreed with his firing.

“Bill Sombo was railroaded by the chief and his fellow officers,” Austin said.

Gray, who voted for the firing, said efforts by some commissioners to broker a deal that would allow Sombo to remain on the job until he was eligible to retire in November, was unacceptable because, he said that Sombo might have decided to stay on the job.

Commissioners Zachary Haigis, Brian West and Tom Krause also voted to fire Sombo.

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