Woods Run prison firings political, lawsuit alleges

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011

Three former Woods Run prison officials claim in a federal lawsuit that the governor engineered their firings as a favor to the prison guards union, not because of an investigation into guards' sexual abuse of inmates.

Michael Farnan, the attorney representing Melvin Lockett, former superintendent at SCI-Pittsburgh; Janis Niemiec, former deputy superintendent of centralized services; and Martin A. Kovacs, former deputy superintendent for facilities management, said they had saved the state millions of dollars in overtime-related payments.

Their actions angered officials in the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, one of only two unions to endorse Gov. Tom Corbett in the 2010 election, and that the Corbett administration returned the favor by firing the officials who were keeping their members from raking in extra pay.

"My clients weren't lazy about (their duties)," Farnan said. "They went out and did the right thing, and they were punished for it."

David LaTorre, spokesman for the union, declined comment other than to issue a statement.

"The PSCOA hasn't had the opportunity to review the suit but at first glance it certainly seems to be laughable," he said.

Corbett's office denied the accusations.

"This is a frivolous lawsuit with absolutely no merit. We are confident that the commonwealth's actions will be shown to be appropriate and lawful, and the case will be thrown out of court,'' said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections declined comment.

The three former officials also claim that the sexual assault investigation began with Niemiec notifying a security captain that an unusually high number of new inmates were asking for the protection of solitary confinement, the lawsuit says.

They spent hours gathering information for investigators and Lockett readily agreed to suspend the eight guards that state investigators identified as participating in or abetting the assaults, the lawsuit says.

"They did everything they could," said Farnan.

The investigation that has led to nearly 100 charges against guard Harry F. Nicoletti, 59, of Coraopolis, including assault, indecent assault, solicitation and terroristic threats related to attacks on more than 20 inmates over the past two years. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said charges against other guards for either sexually assaulting and torturing inmates or failing to intervene in such incidents are likely.

Nicoletti, free on bond, has called them "false allegations."

Zappala said in September that Lockett, Niemiec, Kovacs and former Major of the Guard John Wiser -- who left his position at the same time as the others -- aren't suspects in the investigation.

The pay dispute mentioned in the lawsuit deals with "equalization" pay, which is given to guards who want to work overtime but aren't offered the extra hours. The payments are part of the collective bargaining agreement between the Department of Corrections and the union.

The state has paid prison guards $3 million to $4 million in equalization pay over the past four years, the lawsuit says.

"Rather than be held hostage by the union, the management at SCI-Pittsburgh, including the plaintiffs, devised a plan to follow the collective bargaining agreement closely," the lawsuit says. As a result, the guards at Woods Run didn't receive any equalization pay.

"It is believed and therefore averred that PSCOA was infuriated by the decision of the arbitrator because the efforts of the plaintiffs led to the end of PSCOA membership receiving 'free money' from corrections," the lawsuit says.

Union officials became even angrier when Lockett and the others discovered overpayments that required some guards to reimburse the state a total of $200,000 in equalization pay, the lawsuit says.

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