Westmoreland warden wants public apology from Commissioner Gina Cerilli
The warden of Westmoreland County Prison on Monday filed a written complaint against Commissioner Gina Cerilli and demanded an apology for comments she made last year in yet another attempt to have him fired, this time following a suspended guard’s suicide.
John Walton accused Cerilli of misrepresenting facts associated with a state investigation of human trafficking that resulted in the arrests last month of four people in connection with local massage parlors, several of which were owned by the wife of former guard Henry “Sonny” Caruso III.
“It is unconscionable that Commissioner Cerilli would provide false information in an effort to terminate me,” Walton read from a prepared statement during the county’s prison board meeting. “I am asking for a public apology by Commissioner Cerilli. I am asking she retract all of the false statements she made.”
Cerilli did not comment during Monday’s meeting. In an emailed response to the warden’s allegations, she said she will not issue a retraction.
“I most certainly give no apologies for questioning any of the warden’s activities and management of the prison. I refused to turn a blind eye beginning as far back as 2016,” Cerilli wrote.
In November, Cerilli tried to have Walton fired, saying he improperly handled Caruso’s suspension and in doing so referred to his suicide note that, in part, blamed the warden for prompting him to take his life.
Caruso, 49, of Mt. Pleasant Borough shot himself Nov. 6 in front of a neighbor’s home several weeks after he was suspended with pay after county officials learned he had become a potential target in an ongoing human trafficking investigation. At the November meeting, which was attended by Caruso’s widow, other family members and friends, Cerilli said Walton conducted an improper investigation that led to Caruso’s suspension.
Commissioners Charles Anderson and Ted Kopas at that time called the Caruso investigation routine and said it was done in accordance with county procedures.
Cerilli said she was following Caruso’s suicide note request that Walton be held responsible for his death.
“After speaking with employees at the prison and the family, I felt the duty to ask the prison board to terminate the warden for the manner in which he conducted himself in regards to this investigation,” Cerilli wrote.
Caruso had not been charged at the time of his death. His wife and three others were arrested last month and are awaiting trial. As part of a grand jury presentment, Caruso’s alleged involvement in the human trafficking ring was detailed. Investigators said he drove women from bus stops to the massage parlors and laundered money from the criminal enterprise.
Walton, who has served as warden since 2003, said Monday that Caruso’s suspension was a result of a county investigation and was vindicated by the arrests.
Cerilli, in her email, objected to the “complete disrespect that the warden showed me” during a December closed-door meeting of the prison board. Walton at that time “stated that he felt he was being harassed and bullied by my criticism,” Cerilli wrote. She declined to provide details.
“I guarantee if he spoke to any other male prison board member as he spoke to me, discipline would have been immediately taken,” she wrote. “Evidently, by the way female employees have stated they are treated at the prison, he cannot handle being questioned by a female superior.”
Cerilli also defended her decision to twice seek to have Walton fired in 2016, saying prison employees — mostly women — told her of “severe misconduct and inefficiency”of jail management, including “alleged sexual activity and harassment of themselves and others by management personnel.”
Such conduct cost some members of the management team their jobs, Cerilli said.
“Although the warden wasn’t personally named as participating in this alleged sexual activity, this conduct nevertheless occurred under the warden’s supervision,” she wrote.
Despite publicly voting in 2016 to hire an internal affairs investigator, the prison board has yet to do so, Cerilli said.
Cerilli said her multiple attempts to remove Walton “were based on severe misconduct and inefficiency and therefore 100% warranted and do not rise to any type of harassment.”
In addition to calling for a public apology, Walton on Monday filed a complaint with the prison board in which he asked for an investigation into his claims he was harassed and has been the victim of political retaliation by Cerilli.
The three-page complaint was turned over to the county’s solicitor and human resources department, said Sheriff Jonathan Held, chairman of the prison board.
“I asked before that some action be taken to stop her relentless, baseless and public attacks, yet no action has ever been taken to stop the retaliation and harassment,” Walton wrote in the document. “I have endured this for over three years and suffered through the most hostile workplace environment one could imagine.”
He said Cerilli’s claims have ruined his reputation and threatened the safety of his family, which lives in Mt. Pleasant Township.
“I have been forced to carry a firearm because of what she has said. I am shunned in my hometown by many people who were my friends because of her public false statements,” Walton wrote.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .