Whistleblower suit against Westmoreland sheriff derails deal involving deputy, police dog
A proposed settlement to end a dispute between Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held and a former canine handler in his office is off because of a pending federal whistleblower lawsuit.
County officials had struck a deal to transfer Deputy Sheriff Jason Grecco and drug-sniffing dog Diesel to the county's park police department. Details of the move were being finalized when Grecco filed the lawsuit in Pittsburgh last week. Diesel would have been returned to Grecco's care as part of the settlement, sources familiar with the proposal told the Tribune-Review.
Commissioner Chairwoman Gina Cerilli on Tuesday confirmed the lawsuit derailed the potential settlement.
“We were ready to move forward, but then he sued,” Cerilli said.
In November, Held removed Diesel from Grecco's care and reassigned the dog to another deputy. Held contended there were performance issues with how Grecco used the dog and that it had become a personal pet rather than a working member of the sheriff's office.
County commissioners immediately backed Grecco but said there were legal issues regarding whether the dog was a county asset or was required to remain assigned to the sheriff's office.
Park police Chief Kirk Nolan said a tentative agreement was reached for the transfer of officer and dog to his department to augment patrols at the parks and at other county properties. Nolan said the park police has its own K-9 that specializes in searching for explosives. Diesel would have been used in narcotics investigations, Nolan said.
Grecco's lawyer, Susan Williams, said the lawsuit was filed after it was determined the proposed transfer was not a remedy to resolve the dispute.
“Portions of the settlement agreement were not acceptable,” Williams said. “There was some concern on our part and from the union standpoint that it would be accepted. And we're not sure there even needs to be a solution. What he wants to do is his job in the sheriff's office, and he wants the dog back.”
According to the lawsuit, Grecco contends Held removed the dog from his care in retaliation for speaking with investigators from the state Attorney General's Office who were looking into allegations of election law violations by the sheriff.
Grecco had custody of the dog when it was obtained by the sheriff's office in 2014.
“Sheriff Held removed Diesel from Mr. Grecco's home after being questioned about a connection between Mr. Grecco's reports and the removal of Diesel from service. In doing so, he reduced Mr. Grecco's compensation and reduced his fringe benefits. He also unnecessarily and callously severed a strong bond between Mr. Grecco and Diesel. All of these actions were retaliation for Mr. Grecco's report of fraud and waste,” the lawsuit states.
The Attorney General's Office released a brief comment Tuesday. “We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation,” a spokesman said.
Held did not return a call seeking comment.
Since taking office in 2012, Held — a two-term Republican — has been the subject of more than a half dozen lawsuits for political retaliation and age and gender discrimination filed against him by former and current staffers. County commissioners over the last year settled three of the cases, including one for $2,500 last month.
In the current lawsuit, Grecco contends the dog's use by the sheriff's office was hindered by a lack of resources, most notably that the sheriff's vehicle used to transport Diesel was taken out of service and replaced with another that could not accommodate a cage for the dog.
Williams said Grecco continues to work as a deputy in the sheriff's office and is assigned to courtroom security at the courthouse.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.