Mayor defends secret probes
Plum Mayor John Schmeck testified Wednesday that his secret investigations of borough police officers fell under his role as head of the department.
Schmeck said he never has abused his authority as mayor and did not orchestrate the firing of former police Chief Terry Focareta.
“Did you ever check on your authority to collect information?” asked Pat Sorek, the attorney for Focareta.
“As overseer of the police department, it’s my responsibility,” Schmeck answered on the third day of a trial in Focareta’s federal lawsuit.
The former police chief’s lawsuit charges that Plum Council fired him Jan. 24, 2002 as retaliation for investigations that he and the department had conducted of Schmeck, several councilmen and their relatives.
Plum officials, though, contend that Focareta was fired for having mishandled the hiring of a police officer in fall 2001.
During his questioning of the mayor, Sorek portrayed Schmeck as a man who ran roughshod over the police department — targeting officers for secret investigations and abusing his office by getting a ride in a Plum police car during a night of drinking.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office cleared Schmeck of wrongdoing in both cases after its investigation at Focareta’s urging.
Schmeck said he launched the secret probes to determine whether three officers — including Focareta’s son, Mark, and Plum police Detective Ken Farmerie — had obtained copies of police entrance exams before they took the tests.
Schmeck testified yesterday that Focareta would not allow him to speak with Farmerie back on April 1, 1999. Schmeck said that following the refusal, his attorney, Mark Rush, and Solicitor Bruce Dice advised him to “make something up” to lure Farmerie to Dice’s office.
The mayor said he called back the same day and fabricated a story, telling Focareta that a suspected aggravated assault actually was a case of a woman falling off her bicycle. In response, a suspicious Focareta sent the detective — equipped with a wire as part of the district attorney’s investigation — to Dice’s office.
“Did it ever cross your mind that it was wrong to mislead the chief about an investigation?” Sorek asked Schmeck. “Did you ever think it might be a crime to do that?”
“No,” Schmeck responded.
The Plum Civil Service Commission eventually cleared all the officers of cheating on the police entrance exam.
Sorek then turned his questioning yesterday to Plum police Officer Eric Fluent’s claim that in January 1999 he drove Schmeck from the American Legion, hall where the officer said the mayor had been drinking, to a party on Center Hill Road.
Schmeck denied the allegation.
“Did you take action against (the officer and dispatcher)?” Sorek asked. “They were misrepresenting things to borough officials.”
Schmeck said he took no action.
In Focareta’s case, Sorek said, Schmeck and borough officials fired Focareta because they say he misrepresented a memo to council as having come from the Plum Civil Service Commission. The Sept. 4, 2001 memo referred to police-officer job applicants, including polygraph-test results.
Focareta denies misrepresenting the origin of the memo.
Sorek then turned to the decision to fire Focareta, saying Schmeck and borough officials spent little time deliberating the move.
“Other than the actual hearing (for Focareta), what discussion did the defendants discuss about the statement of charges?” Sorek asked.
“I don’t recall any large discussion,” Schmeck said.
The trial will resume at 9:30 a.m. today. Sorek said he expects to call Dice and Council President Clem Barbarino.