A bumper crop of malfeasance in Lower Bucks

Bristol Twp. has seen four public officials imprisoned in the last year and a half. A fifth awaits trial.

In Bristol Township, the path from public service to penal servitude is getting as busy as nearby I-95.

Yesterday, the former township manager was led off in handcuffs, convicted of stealing $14,000 from taxpayers and lying about it to a Bucks County grand jury.

Last week, a councilwoman was arrested and accused of trying to blackmail a fellow politician.

A former councilman is on parole after six months in the county prison for pilfering almost $25,000 from the local Democratic Committee.

A onetime manager of the township sewage-treatment plant is in his seventh month of a one-year federal prison sentence for having fouled the Delaware River with thousands of gallons of untreated sewage. His former plant operator, implicated in the same crime, is on three years' probation.

Even for Bucks County's largest municipality, population 55,000, that's a staggering toll: four government officials convicted since September 2005, with a fifth awaiting trial.

Speculation also swirls around Mayor Samuel Fenton. According to court testimony, Fenton came under scrutiny last year by a county grand jury investigating corruption. Called to testify before the panel, he instead invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.

Fenton also refused to testify this week against Suzanne Newsome, the former township manager found guilty yesterday of illegally altering her contract to collect $14,000 for unused sick days. Newsome did so without council approval, obtaining only Fenton's initials on the altered document.

During the trial, Fenton's attorney, Richard Fink, sent word that if called to testify, his client would again invoke the Fifth Amendment.

The fallout continued at last night's Township Council meeting. Council members called a public hearing for next Thursday, where Fenton may be asked to resign for his refusal to testify. At the same meeting, Councilman Don Lorady, a Fenton ally, resigned in frustration.

While Bristol Township government may not have cornered the crime-and-corruption market - top township administrators from neighboring Northampton and Bensalem also face criminal charges - its residents are nonetheless mortified.

"I receive calls every day," said Township Council President Anna Rogers, elected two years ago on a pledge of honesty and integrity. "People are happy that the township is getting cleaned up. But they are really embarrassed that these people - the elected officials and the appointed officials - are acting the way they are. They are very upset."

This has been the ugliest stretch in Bristol Township since 1998-99, when Fenton's mayoral predecessor went to prison for corruption and a councilwoman was arrested - and later put on probation - for using crack and assaulting her daughter.

The scandal-numbed citizenry might well brace for more. A county grand jury continues to probe the township, and District Attorney Diane Gibbons says her office has been besieged with tipsters. "There are so many allegations occurring in Bristol Township that we are in the process of following up," Gibbons said last week. "As we do so, other information comes forward."

Even good-government experts say that cannot account for what has been happening in Bristol Township.

"You would think small-town governments are cleaner because everybody knows everybody else's business," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause in Pennsylvania. "In some cases it may be just the opposite, because it becomes so incestuous.

"I guess it all comes down to the nature of the community, what the citizens will permit."

The county grand jury last year indicted Newsome, 42, of Mount Holly, on charges of felony theft, receiving stolen property, tampering with public records, perjury, and false swearing.

A Bucks County Court jury deliberated about three hours before convicting her of all charges. Her attorney, Colin Jenei, had cast her case as a witch hunt by prosecutors frustrated that their grand jury investigation had yielded so little.

Judge David W. Heckler, however, called Newsome's conviction "a matter of great moment," and ordered her handcuffed and detained until she posted bail. No sentencing date has been set.

The township's recent criminal parade began in September 2005, when Councilman Kevin Gilroy pleaded guilty to stealing almost $25,000 from the local Democratic Committee, of which he was treasurer. He was paroled in March 2006, having served six months in prison.

Last October, Steven McClain, the former superintendent of the township sewage-treatment plant, was sentenced to a year in federal prison for dumping raw sewage into the Delaware. Ronald Meinzer, a plant operator who cooperated with federal investigators, received three years' probation.

Both men had been indicted by a federal grand jury.

Last week, Councilwoman Karen Lipsack became the latest to be booked.

Under the moniker "Eye in the Sky," she allegedly sent a threatening e-mail to a fellow councilwoman. The e-mail, titled "High Roller/Hooker," urged the political rival to either resign or change her allegiances. Otherwise, the message said, the rival would be smeared with photos taken of her at a nearby casino and with accusations of excessive drinking and extramarital affairs.

None of which was true, said Gibbons, the district attorney, who marveled at Lipsack's apparent brass, given the number of detectives descending on Bristol Township. "One would think that one would have enough brains not to be committing criminal offenses while an ongoing investigation is being conducted," Gibbons said. "Obviously, brains was not necessary for the election of this particular defendant."

Lipsack's arrest underscored how the mayhem in Bristol Township has begun to run together.

Last week, prosecutors were bringing her up on charges.

This week, the same prosecutors were bringing her into court as a witness against Newsome.

Said Anthony Cappuccio, the senior deputy district attorney assigned to both cases: "I've never been in that situation before."

 


Contact staff writer Larry King

at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.