Law firm to investigate Westmoreland warden’s complaint against Commissioner Gina Cerilli
Westmoreland County will use a Harrisburg law firm to investigate a harassment complaint against county Commissioner Gina Cerilli.
Jail warden John Walton last month accused Cerilli of misrepresenting facts associated with a state grand jury investigation into human trafficking that involved a jail guard. Walton said Cerilli used the false claims as political retaliation in a bid to have him fired. He has demanded a public apology.
County officials confirmed the complaint will be investigated by the law firm of Thomas, Thomas and Hafer, which was hired in February 2018 to look into alleged wrongdoing in the county sheriff’s department.
“It’s under investigation, and we have a law firm that is already under agreement to look into it,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.
According to records from the county controller’s office, the firm was paid $8,900 last year for its work related to the sheriff’s department. It has not been paid in 2019.
Cerilli said she does not object to the investigation.
“Yes, I support it,” she wrote in an email. “I also welcome an inquiry into all issues I have raised at the prison in the past and future.”
Cerilli twice last year during a public meeting of the prison board attempted to have Walton fired, saying he improperly handled an in-house investigation related to the suspension of guard Henry “Sonny” Caruso. Caruso, officials said, was implicated in a human trafficking ring being investigated by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. He committed suicide in November.
A week later, during a prison board meeting, Caruso’s family and friends read portions of a suicide note that blamed Walton for the death. Cerilli also spoke against Walton’s actions during the meeting.
In his three-page complaint alleging political retaliation and harassment, Walton asserts that Cerilli told board members “the criminal investigation was over and those involved were exonerated. That the charges were dropped. That all seized items (house, cars, bank accounts, etc.) of the corrections officer and his wife were returned. All were false statements.”
Caruso had not been charged at the time of his death. His wife — Hui Xu, 44, of Mt. Pleasant — and three others were arrested in March and are awaiting trial in the human trafficking and prostitution case. The grand jury detailed Caruso’s involvement in the ring, saying he drove women from bus stops to massage parlors his wife owned in Monroeville and Murrysville and laundered money from the criminal enterprise.
District Attorney John Peck, a member of the county’s prison board, recalled Cerilli’s statements.
“She told the board that Caruso was not a target and that he was dropped as a target and no longer a suspect,” Peck said. “It was a bit unusual. I don’t know where she got her information from.”
Cerilli said her information was not intended to be made public.
“In an internal letter to only prison board members, I stated that charges were dropped. That information was given to me amongst his friends and coworkers. I do not regret it because it wasn’t a public statement that I made. I simply shared information that I received internally with my fellow board members. Just like any other situation or event,” Cerilli wrote.
Cerilli last month said she won’t apologize or retract her statements with regard to the Caruso investigation.
Walton said he approves of the outside probe into his harassment claim.
“I haven’t heard from the prison board about the allegations,” Walton said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .