Westmoreland sheriff's department employees testify against boss Held
An employee who was so close with Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held that he asked his boss to be the best man at his wedding last year testified against his former friend Wednesday at Held’s public corruption trial.
Sgt. Irvin Shipley testified Held, whom he described as his former close friend, personally directed him to assign staff to visit local gun shops to solicit items for re-election fundraising events in 2015 and 2016.
Shipley gave his testimony during the second day of Held’s criminal trial in which prosecutors contend he used public resources to aid his re-election campaign. Held, 44, of Hempfield is charged with conflict of interest and two counts of theft.
Six witnesses, all current and former deputies, testified against the two-term Republican on Wednesday. They said he punished office employees who balked at obtaining the items or those who spoke to detectives investigating possible political activity being done by on-duty deputies.
In a courthouse meeting with Held and his now-former Chief Deputy Patricia Fritz, Shipley said he was told to assign on-duty staffers to solicit prizes for his annual “I Outshot the Sheriff” fundraiser as they drove through the county under the guise of serving warrants.
“They said they were going to need prizes, and the sheriff asked if the warrant guys could help,” Shipley testified.
Shipley, who oversees the department’s warrant division, told jurors some deputies did not want to participate in fundraiser preparations on their own time and were ordered to do so while at work.
Items such as gift cards, checks and other merchandise were brought back to the courthouse, inventoried and tracked by sheriff’s department staff using county computers and stored in a locked cabinet in the warrant office, Shipley said.
When word surfaced a year later that an investigation had been launched regarding alleged political activity in the sheriff’s office, Held sought to identify and punish cooperators by cutting their overtime and reassigning them to less desirable jobs, Shipley said.
“It wasn’t called out as punishment, but we knew it was,” Shipley testified.
One of the deputies targeted for punishment was the department’s K-9 officer, Deputy Jason Grecco, who first balked at performing the campaign work while on duty and later prompted the first investigation by the county’s district attorney’s office in 2016.
Grecco said he went to his union representative and later county detectives to complain that he was being forced by the sheriff to perform campaign chores during his workday.
He told jurors he and his partner spent nearly 30 hours during one week in 2015 making calls and traveling throughout the county to solicit items for the sheriff’s fundraiser on orders from Held that came through Shipley.
“I talked to detectives, and a month later, there was retaliation. In June 2017, the dog was taken out of service and my duties changed,” Grecco testified. He continues to work as a deputy but has filed a federal lawsuit against Held and the sheriff’s department. County commissioners later returned the dog to Grecco, but the animal no longer works as a canine officer.
Shipley testified he refused an order from Held to concoct a reason to have the dog removed from Grecco’s care and was later punished by Held after he spoke with detectives shortly before his wedding in September 2017.
Deputies told jurors they performed a variety of what they considered campaign activities while on duty, including putting labels on pretzel snack bags and participating in an honor guard ceremony at a Hempfield Walmart store at the request of the sheriff’s now ex-wife.
Deputy Scott McFeely testified he was personally ordered by Held to craft a medallion to be awarded at the sheriff’s fundraiser. McFeely, who also worked as Grecco’s partner on the warrant detail, said he used a county computer to make the design.
“Once it was finished, I took it over for (Held’s) approval,” McFeely said.
Testimony is expected to continue Thursday as more deputies and county officials are slated to testify before Senior visiting Common Pleas Judge Timothy Creany of Cambria County.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.