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Fired Monessen worker to enter program for nonviolent offenders

| Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012

The attorney representing a longtime Monessen employee who was fired for allegedly misusing a city credit card claims the case against Mark Santa Columbo is politically motivated.

Santa Columbo appeared before Monessen District Judge Joseph Dalfonso on Friday to waive his right to a preliminary hearing on a charge of theft by deception.

State police accused Santa Columbo of using a city credit card to purchase gasoline totaling $454.87 for his personal vehicles from Oct. 4 through Dec. 7.

Defense attorney Alan Benyak said Santa Columbo has reached a tentative plea deal with the Westmoreland County District Attorney's Office that will allow him to enter the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program. The program, designed for first-time, nonviolent offenders, does not require an admission of guilt. If Santa Columbo successfully completes the program, he can petition the court to get his case expunged.

Santa Columbo repaid the city, submitting $454.87 to the treasurer's office Jan. 5.

"He was a very good and diligent city employee. This has taken a toll on him," Benyak said. "He has accepted responsibility for what I'm calling an error in judgment. Certainly, there's the issue of the city making him use his personal vehicle to do city work. But he didn't want a hearing and decided to pay restitution."

Benyak said Santa Columbo had a "falling out" with Mayor Mary Jo Smith and her administration. Benyak believes the investigation was driven by politics.

Santa Columbo "said he'd no longer be involved in their politics in the city," Benyak said. "These are very political people, because I think otherwise they would have handled it differently and not charged him criminally."

Benyak said Smith could have handled the situation "internally, suspended him or reprimanded him."

State Trooper Sarah Teagarden charged Santa Columbo on Jan. 3. Smith contacted state police Nov. 22, when she learned about the alleged thefts.

Smith denied she had a "falling out" with Santa Columbo.

"This was never political. State police filed the charges. We didn't want our police handling it because we didn't want it to be a political situation," Smith said.

The mayor said "no one wanted to cause (Santa Columbo) embarrassment."

"For them to try and turn it around on me and make me feel like I did something wrong, that isn't right," Smith said. "It's my fiduciary duty to watch the funds in this city. I think it's a shame, and it's definitely sour grapes."

Santa Columbo was suspended without pay Dec. 9 and fired Jan. 18.

In an affidavit of probable cause, Teagarden said she obtained video surveillance from the BP Fueland at 1706 Grand Blvd., Monessen.

The tapes allegedly show Santa Columbo putting gasoline into his personal vehicle and charging it to the city credit card on Oct. 4 for $56; Oct. 17 for $128.02; Oct. 29 for $37.50; Nov. 10 for $69.01; Nov. 22 for $96.34; and Dec. 7 for $68.

During a police interview, Santa Columbo allegedly admitted that he would "top off" his personal vehicle about twice a month, "but only when he used it for work purposes," according to the affidavit.

Santa Columbo was a management, nonunion employee, and he had a long history of working for the city in various positions under different administrations.

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