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We noted at the beginning of the semester that northeastern Pennsylvania is a journalist’s dream come true. That’s playing out this month as two newspapers in Wilkes-Barre fight to scoop one another in coverage of a blossoming county scandal involving inappropriate use of taxpayer funded debit cards.
The battle has tongues wagging on the gossip blogs, with many proclaiming the Citizen’s Voice the winner. But it’s far from over at this point.
The story of the mishandled debit cards came to light Oct. 19 when the Voice reported that Luzerne County Commissioner Greg Skrepenak was defending the decision to allow employees to spend county money using debit cards and not requiring receipts for purchases.
Less than a week later, the Voice followed up on the story, reporting on Oct. 24 that the county controller’s office had “not received any documentation regarding debit card purchases.”
The next day, both the Voice and the Leader carried articles about how county officials were not following established policy and had failed to produce records establishing that the cards were being used for appropriate county purchases. A day later, the county manager suspended use of the debit cards.
Since late November, the papers have been reporting on the scandal almost daily, uncovering a variety of questionable debit card purchases, including $896 for a meal at Paris Le Rotisserie and a $71 bill at a Vegas strip club.
Today the Voice reported that a Deputy Warden Sam Hyder rang up nearly $2,700 in debit card expenses on a trip that did not entail the kind of training that county officials had claimed and which was supposed to have included free meals and lodging.
Meanwhile, the Leader carried an interview with Hyder in which he denies that the charges were improper and calls the investigation a “witch hunt.” Hyder has admitted he lied during his previous interview with the Voice in which he denied that he was responsible for the $71 bill at a Vegas strip club.
The debit card purchases total more than $40,000, including some $10,000 by Commissioner Skrepenak. At the same time, the county is borrowing more than $15 million to cover this year’s budget deficit.
To this point, the “Scoop Scoreboard” clearly has the Citizen’s Voice ahead. However, there appear to be numerous stories still unreported, including new allegations about improper use of county-owned vehicles.
One can only hope both newspapers will rise to the challenge. Wilkes-Barre is one of a handful of two-newspaper towns left in the nation. The struggle to outdo one another, while serving a vital public role as a watchdog on local government, is some of the best fun one can have in journalism.