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Review of allegations of cheating by Western Pennsylvania cops to take months

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 10:57 p.m.

A state probe that began in February into allegations of cheating by dozens of Western Pennsylvania municipal police officers on their annual recertification exam might last many more months before authorities act, a top law enforcement official told the Tribune-Review on Thursday.

“It's similar to the sort of other investigations that we do,” said Pennsylvania State Police Maj. Douglas E. Grimes, executive director of the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission, which certifies cops as mentally and morally fit for duty. “If you look at many investigations that ended up eventually in Allegheny Common Pleas Court, they might have taken far longer than six months to complete. We want to be thorough.”

A whistle-blower in a class of more than 30 officers studying social media and their applications to computer and telephone crime alerted state investigators in January that a fellow cop shipped a photographed answer key to the upcoming exam by cellphone to other students, the Trib revealed in February. Officials acted quickly by swapping out quizzes. Some officers apparently did not notice the change and flunked the test.

Police departments in Duquesne and North Versailles confirmed to the Trib that their officers were in the course and were contacted by state investigators but said they do not know the status of the investigation or when it will wrap up. Their unidentified officers remain on duty, the departments said.

Cheating on the exam likely breaks no laws but could threaten an officer's career if the training commission decides to decertify him or her. At the least it calls into question the ethics of officers who cheat on tests or remain mum when they watch others do it, Grimes said.

In 2011, the commission stripped the certifications of 15 Delaware County officers caught cheating two years earlier. Changes in state law now give the commission more flexibility in penalties, ranging from brief suspension of certification to a lifetime ban from working in Pennsylvania. Officers can appeal decisions.

At a quarterly meeting on Thursday at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County, the commission board voted 13-2 to approve the recertification of former Nether Providence police Detective Michael K. Irey and Brookhaven police Officer Francis Scott Ely. Both appealed bans stemming from the Delaware County investigation.

A board subcommittee had voted 4-1 on Wednesday to recommend restoring the officers' duties.

The Trib publicly objected to the votes, citing concerns that they were to be deliberated in closed-door sessions in violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law and its spirit of conducing government business in public.

On Wednesday, before joining the subcommittee in a closed executive session, the full board cited two exceptions to debating public policy in an open forum: the right to consult privately with an attorney regarding legal strategies in litigation and to review agency business that, if disclosed, would compromise confidential information culled from an investigation.

The Trib argued that courts for two decades have ruled that boards cannot toss out “generalized fluff” about existing or threatened litigation. Judges have held that boards must specify the names of parties, the civil dockets hearing complaints, or the nature of litigation proposed so that an audience can deduce whether the secret session is designed merely to conduct public business in private.

“If the board didn't provide an appropriate level of specificity about why they needed to conduct their meeting in private, then the meeting should not have taken place,” said David Strassburger of the Downtown firm of Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick and Gefsky, a Sunshine Law expert who represents the Trib.

Although only five members of the subcommittee would vote on the recommendation to reinstate Irey and Ely, the entire board stayed for the closed-door session. Afterward, the subcommittee conducted no debate and moved to a vote. The final decision by the full board featured no prior public discussion.

That did not surprise Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, who said state police and municipal law enforcement agencies “seem to be increasingly secretive,” despite open government laws. The coalition has urged legislators in Harrisburg to narrow “overly broad” exceptions in the Sunshine Law that allow “just about any kind of police record to be withheld from the public.”

Carl Prine is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

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