Sally Vaughn appeals denial of courthouse access card request
TOWANDA - Bradford County Prothonotary Sally Vaughn wants her access card to the county courthouse back.
It was taken away after Vaughn was accused of making threats against courthouse workers three years ago. The county sheriff is standing firm in his decision to deny her request to reinstate it, despite the fact that the county district attorney has never filed charges against Vaughn.
On Friday in Towanda at a hearing at the county courthouse with Senior Judge Brendan J. Vanston presiding, Vaughn took the witness stand in her appeal of the sheriff's denial of her request.
Previously, former county sheriff Steve Evans revoked the card after Dale Lafy of Ulster, back in 2009, told police that Vaughn said she wanted to harm other workers in the courthouse. Vaughn has been unsuccessful in getting the card back from the current sheriff, Clinton J. Walters, who also testified at the hearing. Walters is the respondent in the court action.
The card would give Vaughn access to the courthouse and prothonotary's/clerk of court's office when the courthouse is not open to the public. With the card, she would also be able to bypass the security system/metal detector in the main entrance by using other doors elsewhere in the building. Now, she has to go through the main entrance.
"I was told I didn't smile enough," Vaughn testified about the former sheriff's explanation in revoking her card. When he took the stand later in the day, Evans denied making the statement, however.
Rather, Evans testified that he was "gravely concerned" for the safety of people in the courthouse in the wake of Lafy's allegations about Vaughn. He stated Vaughn was missing, and no one knew where she was, following the incident.
However, in deciding not to file charges against Vaughn, Bradford County District Attorney Dan Barrett said at the time, "We have no information that any step was made to carry out any alleged threat."
Vaughn has denied making any threatening statements. She testified that Lafy started rumors, after he was no longer living at her house. She had thrown him out.
Lafy had been dating Vaughn, Barrett confirmed, when asked for comment in 2009. The statements made by Lafy "came after or during the ending of his relationship with Vaughn," Barrett said previously.
"If the statements (by Vaughn) were made, some of the statements could be characterized as venting," Barrett stated, when asked for comment. Barrett did not take the stand Friday, although calling him was briefly discussed.
Court papers - filed in the prothonotary's office by Vaughn's attorney, David Tomaszewski - describe Walters' denial of the access card for Vaughn as "arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, without any legal or factual justification, and an abuse of discretion." Vaughn also claims that her due process rights were denied.
Other court papers, filed by Ray DePaola, the attorney who was representing the sheriff, meanwhile, provide additional details about Lafy's accusations, with significantly more information than was revealed in the past.
The papers read, "The Pennsylvania State Police were advised by Mr. Lafy that the appellant (Vaughn) made threats about 'going to the courthouse and taking out Judge Smith, some commissioners, Mary Lou (Vanderpool), and any deputies that tried to stop her,'" and that Vaughn also stated that "when she was done, she was going to kill herself." Evans testified that people "felt threatened" due to the allegations, including Vanderpool, the court administrator.
At the time of the incident in 2009, security at the courthouse was increased on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 10, after Lafy's accusations. The heightened security measures were lifted by the time the courthouse opened for business two days later.
During the hearing, Vaughn testified that she found that her card was taken away on the Monday following the Nov. 10, 2009 date.
Under questioning from DePaola, Vaughn said that she spent time in the behavioral science unit at Robert Packer Hospital, but she denied that she was committed there. She said it was a voluntary admission. In the court papers, DePaola claimed she was involuntarily committed "pursuant to a mental health 302 commitment form."
This year, Tomaszewski sent Walters a letter on Feb. 13 requesting an access card for Vaughn. Walters reviewed the document during the hearing, stating he was familiar with it.
"It is my understanding that every other row officer, and possibly every other county employee who works at the courthouse has an access card," Tomaszewski wrote. He noted that Vaughn, in her duties as prothonotary/clerk of courts, requires access to her office outside of regular business hours. During the hearing, Vaughn testified that her staff members have access cards.
"Please note that Ms. Vaughn recently retained her position as Bradford County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts by a wide margin in the recent election, and there is no justifiable reason why she cannot have the access card, which has been issued to most if not all other employees at the courthouse," Tomaszewski wrote in the letter. He said there is no legitimate basis to deny her the card.
According to Tomaszewski, Vaughn needs the access beyond normal business hours because a new office management system is being installed, noting that she needs to be present during its installation and has to become familiar with the new system. He also noted that the county commissioners have approved about $5,000 in overtime, "a portion of which is to be usedâ¦to accomplish this task." Vaughn testified about this issue during the hearing Friday, noting the importance of being involved with the installation of the new system and having a "good handle" on the system.
During the hearing, Walters noted that he is responsible for security in the courthouse, and he doesn't feel comfortable giving Vaughn an access card, due to Lafy's threat allegations. He testified that an access card had been revoked another time, when there was an employee who was suicidal.
Also brought up during the hearing was Ordinance No. 2005-1 by the Bradford County Commissioners, which established the security system for the protection of personnel and visitors at the courthouse. As pointed out in the hearing, it doesn't mention an access card. It deals with the regulation of weapons. It does state that the ordinance "shall be enforced" by the sheriff's office, as authorized by the commissioners.
Tomaszewski raised the issue of whether the sheriff's office has any authority to revoke an access card or deny an application for an access card. While Ordinance No. 2005-1 doesn't mention this, it was pointed out that the sheriff's office has an internal policy regarding the cards.
Evans testified that he learned about the Lafy incident through the police, and sent a deputy to investigate and get details from Lafy. Vaughn's attorney was concerned about whether "both sides of the story" were obtained.
No decision was made at the hearing.
At the end of the hearing, DePaola requested that he be provided a transcript of the hearing and be given seven days to review it. He then will submit a brief to the judge, including his argument on the law, and Tomaszewski will then be given seven days to submit a response. The judge will then make a decision.
Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.