Commissioners criticized for settling lawsuit filed by former county jail inmate who claimed guards beat him
Westmoreland County Controller Jeff Balzer on Monday blasted a $25,000 payment to a former jail inmate to settle a lawsuit in which he claimed he was beaten by guards.
Balzer, speaking during a meeting of the prison board, was specifically critical of the decision made by county commissioners to resolve the case without input from the prison board’s other three members.
“While I will concede that it is indeed their decision to make, I feel it sets a bad precedent for this institution, is not supportive of our corrections officers who followed procedure in this case and most certainly will encourage the filing of more actions by inmates who have nothing to lose in doing so,” Balzer said.
Commissioners signed off on the out-of-court settlement this month with Kevan Kolling, 68, of Hempfield.
Kolling claimed in late 2014 he was beaten by guards who barged into his cell after he covered a window with paper. He said he was taunted by guards after he returned to his cell following a visit to the facility’s medical unit. Kolling contended as he sat on his bed, four guards entered his cell and he was maced and beaten. He contended that after the attack, he was handcuffed and dragged more than 100 feet into a shower and dropped to the floor.
According to court documents, Kolling, who has a prosthetic left leg, said he suffered a broken left clavicle and a dislocated shoulder in the incident.
Balzer said he was troubled that he along with Sheriff Jonathan Held and District Attorney John Peck, members of the prison board, did not learn about the lawsuit settlement until it was approved by commissioners at a public meeting or read a news report about the case.
“It is also important to note that prior to this settlement, we have had a near-perfect record of winning these cases or getting them dismissed,” Balzer said.
He asked that all members of the prison board receive a monthly briefing from the county solicitor’s office about ongoing legal issues involving the jail.
Held, who serves as chairman of the prison board, agreed with Balzer.
“All members of the prison board should be updated and have input into all matters involving Westmoreland County Prison. This case shows how the commissioners have, once again, opened up the county checkbook for a case that should have been fought in court. I guess we are seeing ‘The Old School’ way of doing things, which we have heard so much about lately,” Held said in a statement.
Commissioners have paid more than $350,000 to settle lawsuits filed against Held and the sheriff’s department since he first took office in 2012. Held, who maintained no wrong doing in every case filed against him, was not part of the decisions to settle those cases.
Commissioner Ted Kopas defended his vote to settle the latest lawsuit against the jail.
“There’s no question that the ultimate decision rests with the board of commissioners. We make the decisions based on the information we have at the time we have it,” Kopas said.
Commissioners Gina Cerilli and Charles Anderson declined to comment about Balzer’s criticism. They and Kopas said they would support monthly legal briefings to the entire prison board.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .