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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Lucrative World of Northampton County Court Administration

They call him the snake. He slithers throughout the courthouse, winding down hallways and into offices, squeezing the life out of every office. He originally worked at the prison, and at a time when it was rocked by scandal over the use of prisoners to perform menial tasks for judges, and other county officials.

Need an oil change? How about a little landscaping? Want a handyman? If you knew the right people, you could get it done for a pittance. That's what he did, and it helped him line his pockets. He used cheap prison labor while deputy warden to work on his Easton apartment buildings.

This is the world of Jim Onembo, Northampton County's court administrator. When reporters started digging into judicial involvement with prison labor, Onembo ran interference for the court.

That's something President Judge Freedberg remembered when his first selection for court administrator punched a woman in the face and dragged her across the street by her hair. He needed someone with a little more finesse, hired Onembo, and we've been stuck with him since 1994.

Full Time Job?

Although the LV League of Women Voters fails to list Onembo's salary with that of other local government officials, he earns close to $90,000 as a "state employee," well in excess of every member of Stoffa's cabinet. As Court Administrator for eight full-time and two senior judges, as well as fifteen district justices, one would think Onembo is giving his undivided attention to Northampton County Court administration. The Court's own web site tells us Onembo "is responsible for the long and short-term judicial planning, interaction with the other branches of county government, day-to-day operations of the Court as well as the oversight of the various court divisions and district justice offices."

Sounds like a full time job, huh?

That's what the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts tells me.

Somebody better tell Onembo. In addition to working for all these full time judges and doing all this "judicial planning," he's a paid zoning officer in Franklin Township, N.J.'s. He also picks up a few bucks here and there as a real estate agent. Oh, by the way, that's in Jersey. Our court administrator is a wheeler dealer who doesn't even live in the county.

Onembo must need the dough. According to courthouse employees, he slinks into his reserved parking place with a different car every day of the week. His New Jersey home is valued at $402,900 according to Warren County tax records. He also owns a shore property in fashionable Eastham, Massachusetts, assessed at $454,000. I wonder how much prison labor went into that place.

Insider trading, court administrator style.

As court administrator, Onembo has perfected the practice, learned as deputy warden, of using his official position to enhance his financial position. Let me tell you how he did that.

Although the courthouse expansion project was extremely controversial, Onembo became an ardent advocate. He met privately with individual members of both the legislative and executive branch, and made numerous public remarks endorsing the courthouse expansion. He told the Express Times it would be a "tremendous waste of taxpayer money" to delay the courthouse expansion: "It's clear that there are needed capital improvements that must move forward . . . I credit [the Northampton County Executive] and the administration with recognizing that and moving Northampton County well into the 21st century." (11/19/03). As the court's spokesperson, Onembo was not only advocating a political position, but was in effect endorsing a county executive who wanted a third term.

Other than its general location, details about this controversial expansion were not generally known. Plans and designs were kept in Onembo's office. And Onembo knew something not generally known - there was only one way in. Unless you had an office or parking located close to the rotunda, you could expect to walk several blocks just to reach the courthouse.

Armed with this knowledge, Onembo bought a property (680 Wolf Ave.) located close to this entrance from a widow for $26,000 in 2003 even though the property was not listed. At that time, the property was worth $42,000, according to records in the assessment office. He also took out a $69,000 mortgage to do some renovations.

When I complained to county council about this insider trading, President Judge Freedberg huffed that the mere suggestion of any impropriety was an "insult to the dignity of the court." Onembo did nothing that could not be done by any member of the public. He denied Onembo used privileged information.

Yeah, right. The simple truth is that practically no one, in or out of government, knew that access to the new building would be restricted to the rotunda. But Onembo knew. I saw Onembo a few days after making my complaint. His remarks to me, as he slinked along? "I hope you know your career is over." (Which one, Jim?)

A few days ago, Onembo sold the building to a local attorney for $155,000. Cha Ching! By my calculations, his profit is $59,000 in three years. Not bad! And interestingly, the property still was assessed the same as when Onembo bought it, before he did all those renovations. Hmmm. Don't you think your assessment would go up if you renovated your property? Now I suppose assessors may not have known what was going on right across the street from their offices. But given Onembo's propensity for insider trading, I question whether he found a way to delay reassessment, and pocket a few more bucks. After all, he had a recent vacation in Australia.

Hiring, court administrator style.

Although there are career service regulations and unions all over the place, patronage is alive and well in Northampton County. Judges have control over a significant and growing number of employees in probation and domestic relations, to say nothing of their personal butlers, called tipstaffs.

I had naively assumed for years that these employees were selected fairly and based upon their knowledge and experience. But a few months ago, I learned that the court administrator has extended his reach into the selection of court employees.

I found this out when a highly ranked elected official (not Angle) began complaining to me that Onembo had rejected one of his recommendations for a position in the probation office. She was rejected in favor of someone else the court wanted. "We have someone else in mind," Onembo hissed when told this person was the most qualified.

What amazed me is that both this elected official and Onembo were discussing a position that had not even been created or approved by Council. Although the position had not yet been advertised, it was already filled by the courts, and Onembo was running interference for the judges just as well as he did when he was deputy warden.

Commitment to Justice, court administrator style.

Insider training and patronage are not enough for Onembo. His loyalty to judges and their projects will even trump the administration of justice.

I first got wind of this during the bond proceedings. Every lawsuit against the county was for some strange reason steered by Onembo's office to the same senior judge, Isaac Garb, who hails from nearby Bucks County. Now this may have backfired because I like Garb. He's a fearless thinker who calls things as he sees them. But don't you think it's a little odd that every case was assigned to him? And he was getting as much work from the county as if he were a full-time judge. Garb was reversed when he raised and sustained his own defense to one of my Sunshine Act complaints - a defense that the county itself had failed to consider. Garb was also chastised for being an advocate instead of a judge.

Onembo's commitment to justice is demonstrated most clearly by my latest Sunshine Act complaint against Northampton County Council. Within minutes of filing the complaint, he was on the phone with the Clerk's office, an office over which he has no jurisdiction, demanding to know how I paid for the suit. He was trying to help out a few council members who incorrectly claimed that Councilman Ron Angle was behind it all.

I wish that were so. Now I can understand a Councilman making that suggestion, but not a court administrator. Judges and their court administrators are supposed to stay out of politics, but Onembo was squirming behind the scenes. His phone call is a clear indication of bias from a court administrator who's supposed to be committed to justice.

So if you want a job that pays well and gives you the opportunity for more on the side, the lucrative world of court administration might be just the thing for you. Just check your personal ethics at the rotunda doors and start slithering.

Next time I'll tell you what a great job the court administrator and judges did with our courthouse expansion.

Afternoon Update: Thanks to fellow blogger Lehigh County Redneck, I've just learned that Jim Onembo is also one of Franklin Township's two constables. Man, is that guy busy! I wonder if he gets a badge. Now excuse me while I catch up on some parking tickets.

Second Afternoon Update:In my original post, I told you Onembo earns at least $90,000. I have just been corrected by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which informs me that Onembo's annual salary is actually $102,705.00. I don't know if he gets a badge.


Anonymous said...

He's always been a snake and he was lucky that he did not go to jail with Mike Solomon.

Bernie O'Hare said...

He needs to answer why he can work as a zoning officer and real estate agent when his job is ful time. He needs to explain $59,000 profit based on info not generally known. Amd I'd like him to explain his call to the Clerk of Civil Division over a matter that is none of his business.

A Big Fat Slob said...

Superior work.

Bernie O'Hare said...

DemFly, It's no secret I have no regard for Onembo. That's why I was careful to provide a factual basis for every assertion. I believe his full time job as court administrator should preclude other employment. This is not just because he really should be devoting all his energy to court administration, but because of ethical concerns that inevitably arise when he starts dabbling elsewhere. His insider trading at the courthouse was minimized, but now that he has realized a $59k profit and it is clear that the rotunda is the only real access, I believe it was unethical. Finally, his involvement in hiring and sticking hius nose in a specific case is despicable. I think he should be replaced.

Bernie O'Hare said...

To ABIGFATSLOB: First, I want you to know I will be listing 5 weird things about myself. That should be easy. Second, thanks for your compliment. I'll remember that if I end up in the can today for indirect contempt of court.

Bernie O'Hare said...

DemFly: I'm sure he has a county credit card, and I think he's also required to file an annual statement for the Ethics Comm'n. I just might look into that. Thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous said...

When I distributed throughout the county Government Center the cartoon my Billy Bytes illustrator did of the Department of Community and Economic Development Director banging a New Jersey dentist's wife in a motel room in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (while next door the dentist was banging the Director's wife), I got a call over the public address system from Onembo, with whose secretary I had dropped off a copy, demanding that I see him in his office.

He paged me several times.

I ignored him and left the premises, that time under my own steam, and not between two of Sheriff Jeff Hawbeckers deputies.

Bernie O'Hare said...

DemFly, I believe I have to rquest the Ethics statement from the Administrative Office of Pa. Courts. I'll do that.

Anonymous said...

The sun will shine on every dog's ass one day in its life. This dog will gets his day. And I can't wait to see it happy.

I would like to see how that great reporter, Robert Fisk, would report a story like this. I'll call him. Oh wait, there are no more phone lines in Lebanon! It is called war crimes on humanity. And they'll have their day too!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Billy, I remember that newsletter. Who could forget it? The drawing may have offended some people. But who knows? Maybe Onembo wanted a few extra copies!

Bernie O'Hare said...

To Anon, I think Fisk could do it, but it's a tough story. There's a lot of smoke, but it's hard to find the fire.

As far as phones to Lebanon being cut, it would be interesting to know how Easton's Lebanese community views the Israeli invasion.

Anonymous said...

It's a mess. We understand the Jews and their right to live, especially in peace. Just like in any country, ANY COUNTRY, Jews live among the masses and live in peace. i.e. Jews right now live in Iran and they are not slaughtered. What we read in the paper about Iran is contradictory to this. Imagine the masses hearing that Jews can live and worship in peace within the confines of an Iranian government? Jews have lived in Lebanon for years in peace. Jews lived among the Lebanese/Phoenicians when it was called Phoenicia. Jews lived among the masses in this area when Jesus Christ walked the Earth.

As well, we hope the Israeli government understand the Lebanese's rights and their inability to protect their borders because of the weak military due to the Syrian occupation just until last year. (Is that a run-on sentence or what?) But it is the Zionists we don't care for. And somehow, deep inside, we do understand the rights to co-exist for the Hezbollahs and all the diaspora of the Earth, especially the Palestinians. But I misspoke when I claimed, "We." I should have said I and by concensus of what I notice, the Easton folk do, too.

If they prosecute the Israelis for war crimes, such as yesterday blowing up the last road to Syria while killing twelve people who were trying to flee the war; well then you have to prosecute all the likes of countries and their attrocities against humanity, meaning the USA in Iraq. No one likes or wants war, anywhere.

I won't even get into what is perceived to motivate Hezbollah versus an independant Zionist state. But you have to put yourself into others' shoes sometimes. No matter how crazy it seems. We all have to live on this Earth. I just hope no more people, Jewish, Lebanese, or whatever get killed. And, I hope those two Israeli soldiers are returned to their families, safely.

Bernie O'Hare said...

To Anon, I am assuming that you are part of Easton' Lebanese community. Correct me if I am wrong. The common perception among those of us whose ethnic heritage is not Middle Easttern is as follows - "They're all crazy. They're going to kill each other and drag us into it."

But when I read your remarks, you don't sound crazy at all. In fact, you make sense. If everyone thought like you, we might actually evolve away from settling our differences with whatever destructive device has been most recently invented.

Thanks for your voice of moderation.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe a priest (in training?)

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I forgot. There are no camels and no oil in Lebanon. Those facts change much. Just ask Connie Rice.

Anonymous said...

Onembo freelanced his purchase of the house on Wolf Avenue, but most of the private residential properties acquired in the Dutchtown-Gallows Hill neighborhood for the Government Center expansion were acquired through official county government fraud.

The county acquired one of these properties located on S. Union St. and identified by expansion opponent "Prison Watch" as owned by Michael and Angelina Fleck.

When I and other Prison Watch members publicly exposed these acqusitions as violations of the county's Home Rule Charter, County Council Preident J. Michael Dowd took the torutured position that the charter's Section 602(a)(6), which requires council approval for real estate transactions, applied only to sale ("conveyance"} of county-owned property, and not to real property acquisition.

Dowd, who represents the county's seat Easton on council, and his colleague, to cover their rear ends, defrauded the county's voters with the phony referendum.

It was fraud because county council already possessed the authority, and the responsiblity, of approving - by ordination - county acquisition of real property "for redevelopment, rehabilitation, and renewal programs for the alleviation and prevention of slums, obsolescence, blight, or other conditions of deterioration, and the achievement of the most appropriate use of land," as required by Section 602(a)(12) of Northampton County's Home Rule Charter.

So while Bethlehem, the sister third-class city of Easton, the county's seat, adopts an ordiance prohibited the siting of a prison on the former Bethlehem Steel property on Bethlehem's South Side Neighborhood, Northampton County Council failed to adopt an ordinance protecting Easton's Dutchtown-Gallows Hill neighborhood.

In fact, Northampton County used the Government Center expansion to destroy that predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood with a remnant still of Lebanese.

As Northampton County Administrator Jim Hickey so colorfully put it, "Flaming monkeys will fly from my ass before a prison is built outside of Easton."

I also have a cartoon of Hickey and his pronouncement that I will be distriubuting in downtown Easton and the Government Center this week.

Anonymous said...

"Prison Watch" quickly dissolved. It was coopted by the officials of Northampton County and its seat Easton.

The officials infiltrated Easton's "artsy-fartsy" set with glamorous downtown Easton projects like the Eastonian (which, by the way, is going to be marketing its over-priced condos at an open house on August 25, 2006, though nothing has been published in the mainstream media)and Arcadia Properties' Riverwalk - both projects located in the Delaware River floodplain, and, in the case of Riverwalk, in both the Delaware River and Bushkill Creek floodplains.

And then there's Lou "Hannibal Lecter" Pektor's high-rise honecomb of townhouses, proposed for S. 3rd St. in the Lehigh River floodplain.

And don't forget Easton's Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), New Urbanists of Easton (NUE), Lafayette College, City of Easton, Northampton Couunty, and Commonwealth of Pennslvania supported and financed Bushkill Village proposed for the Bushkill Creek floodplain -

With 33 privately owned properties for the Bushkill Village being taken by the City of Easton and its Redevelopment Authority under the threat of eminent domain.

Shades of Kelo vs. New London, Connecticut, which on June 23, 2005, was all the outrage in the Easton area when the U.S. Supreme Court under its new Chief Justice John Roberts handed down Kelo vs New London is never even whispered about anymore.

I was at a party at the home of my older daughter Sarah Parker-Givens and Lisa Rochelle when the Roberts' decision was handed down and everyone at the party was outraged - including Sarah's and Lisa's neighbor David "Randy" Leggett, who owns IAS Automotive, one of the properties in the Bushkill Creek Corridor condemned by Easton and the ERA as "blighted" and threatened with seizure under eminent domain.

Anonymous said...

Northampton County Councilman Ron Angle; Palmer Township resident and short-lived Northampton County Executve candidate in 2005 John Todero; Palmer Township resident Frank Ferraino who knows what it's like to be police-escorted from a public meeting, having been so ejected from a meeting of the Easton Area School Distict directors; and Wind Gap Borough resident and Northampton County Council candidate in 2005 Ralph Stampone will attest that in at least one of my comments to Northampton County Council during courtesy of the floor I compared the county' corruption to that of Phoenix City, Alabama, in the early and middle 1950's.

For those who don't know, Phoenix City is just across the Chattahoochie River from Fort Benning, Georgia, where Freemansburg pacifist, political activist, and Green Party candidate for Northampton County Council in 2001 was arrested last year on a charge of trespassing on the grounds of the Fort's "School of the Assassins."

Joe is now serving a six-month sentence for that offense in a federal prison somewhere in Eastern or Central Pennsylvania.

After Ron, John, Frank, and Ralph sit around the table of John's wife Rosina after county council meeting, eating her homemade suprasotta, cracked olives, and pickled eggplant, downed with glasses of good wine, and laughing and joking about my Phoenix City lectures to county council, we would repair to John's and Rosina's den for more laughs and jokes as we watched the video tape my older daughter Sarah Parker-Givens made of John's presd conference announcing his short-lived candidacy for Northampton County Executive.

Anonymous said...

Billy Bytes newsletters, articles published on the www.billybyte.com website, and postings on the http://www.billybytes.com/blog/ contain enough documentation to put Northampton County officials in Pennsylvania and federal prisons for the rest of their lives -

and to use the proceeds from their estates to retire the 1988 $30 million bond for Juvenile Detention and Probation Center construction and 2001 $111 million bond for courthouse and prison expansion, both bonds issued by the county's fraudulent General Purpose Authority and illegal, conspiratorial actions of Northampton County's three branches of government - executive, legislative, and judicial - in the floating of the $111 million bond.

The conspiracy also implicates the county's bond counsel, Blank Rome, whose business with the county has been so "lucrative," to borrow Bernie's term, that the Philadelph-
and Washington, D.C.- based law firm established a branch office in Allentown.

The managing partner of this branch is a member of the board of directors of Embassy Bank, "the bank without borders."

Anonymous said...

The Chattahoochee River separates Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, home of Fort Benning, the scene of Joe DeRaymond's arrest last year leading to his incarceration in a federal penitentiary in Eastern or Central Pennsylvania.

Here in Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey, the Delaware River separates the New Jersey town of Phillispburg and Pennsylvania's City of Easton, both as corrupt today as Phenix City and Columbus were in the early and mid-1950s - corruption that led to the murder of Alabama's Attorney General Albert Patterson who was investigating the corruption in Phenix City.

His murder lionized his son John Patterson, who ran for Alabama governor against his opponent George Corley Wallace, the first-time run for either candidate.

Patterson, trailing Wallace, played the race card, pulling him ahead in the race that he ultimately won'

Patterson's victory prompted Wallace's infamous statement, "I'll never again be out-niggered in an election.

George Wallace is one of the biggest reasons I left my home state of Alabama and came to New Jersey in 1972 and then to Pennsylvania in 1987, after a brief sojourn in Blairstown, Warren County, New Jersey - for four years, long enough to help create the Paulinskill Valley Trail and to lobby successfully for Phillipsburg as the official site of New Jersey's Transporation and Railroad Museum.

The corruption of the icon connecting Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, is well documented.

So are the scandals surfacing now about the Highlands Act, whose ostensible goal is to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres in seven Northern New Jersey counties from the Delaware River to the Hudson.

Yet since the late '80s or early 90s, when Phillipsburg won the site designation over two or three other strong competitors, and after the expenditure of more than one billion dollars to preserve New Jersey open space, the museum was never built on the 70-odd acres the state bought for it on the banks of the Delaware River.

Ownership of the sight wound up through New Jersey's, Phillipsburg's, and the DRJTBC's corrupt officials in the hands of Phillipsburg native, former New Jersey Governor Jim Florio law partner, and BethWorks parnter Michael Perrucci.

This corruption has been fueld by Northampton County Area Community College, the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, the Lehigh Valley Industrial Parks Inc., and The Express-Times - through meetings attended by officials of these organizations at the Warren County Community College in August 2005 and at the Harkers Hollow Country Club in Harmony Township, Warren County, New Jersey.

The most recent corruption in Northampton-Warren counties and in Easton-Phillipsburg reported widely by Billy Bytes was the conspiracy between these jurisdictions to declare Plainfield Township octogenarian Anna Mae Kessler mentally incompetent so they could waste her estate, including the aunctioning off of her home of many years at 574 Bangor Road, Plainfield Township.

Northampton County preferred to waste Anna Mae's estate, rather than her niece who is a resident of Phillipsburg and who held Anna Mae's power of attorney (POA), which Northampton County was determined to wrest from her.

In the racial and socio-economic warfare created by Northampton County officials, they found it intolerable that the niece, who's white, is married to a Black man receiving workmen's compensation for on-the-job injuries.

Northampton and Warren County officials also resent the fact that the couple are on public assistance and live in Section 8 housing, affordable housing that both counties are trying to abolish.

Anna Mae, meanwhile, lives, if it can be called that, in the Williams Manor assisted-living home in the remote location of 164 Baron Road, Bushkill Township, where she is forbidden to see many of her relatives and loved ones, including one of her two sons.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'd give that up in a heartbeat for a stint as a Chippendale. But thanks for your nice words.

Anonymous said...

Northampton County's targeting one Black man in Phillipsburg, Warren County, New Jersey is one thing.

I refer, of course, to the husband of former Plainfield Township octogenarian Anna Mae Kessler, whose niece, a white woman, is married to the Black man, with whom she lives in Phillipsburg.

The niece and her husband cared for Anna Mae under the power of attorney (POA) that the aunt gave her niece.

Northampton County wanted the POA revoked and accomplished this by purportedly making Easton attorney Robert Glazier, Esq., Anna Mae's "temporary guardian," in a decree handed down presumably by Northampton County Judge Edward Smith.

From there the case went to Motions Judge James Hogan, one of the county's two senior judges, who denied Anna Mae a continuance of her scheduled February 28, 2006, appearance before Judge William Moran.

Anna Mae wanted the continuance because she was in the very process of being outfitted with hearing aids.

As the old saying goes, Anna Mae was deaf in one ear and couldn't hear out of the other.

In fact, Anna Mae possessed only 20 percent of her hearing capacity when she was examined physically and mentally and delcared non compos mentis.

Anna Mae reasonably wanted second-opinions as to her physical and mental status upon restoration of her hearing.

Northampton County denied Anna Mae her reasonable request and the county obstructed me as a declared independent candidate for governor from filing an appeal on her behalf.

But it is a horse of a different color for Northampton County, usurping s federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB)metropolitan statistical area (MSA) re-alignment, to pluck the Newark Region out of the New Jersey MSA while simulaneously placing the remainder of the Garden State, including Warren County, in the so-called Lehigh Valley MSA.

The Moring Call reporter Gregory Karb, in an article titled "Lehigh Valley, Warren County reunited as a metro area," subtitled "Economics, social patterns similar, federal office says," published June 22, 2003, wrote:

"It sounds like a child's riddle: When is the Lehigh Valley not just the Lehigh Valley anymore?

"Answer: When the federal government [OMB] says so.

"In what seems a well-kept secret locally, the Lehigh Valley has been merged with its Warren County, N.J., neighbor - at least for statistical purposes. The federal Office of Management and Budget decreed it so on June 6, effective immediately.

"...adding Warren County [to the Lehigh Valley MSA] makes the region's housing more expensive and the median commuting time longer, which could be negative in evaluating a region's livability."

Brace for a Northampton County-wide property reassessment.

The Newark region was excluded from the Lehigh Valley MSA for racial and socio-economic reasons: It drags down the glowing statistics relating to age, education, and wealth that the Lehigh VAlley Economic and Development Corporation, Lehigh Valley Industrial Parks Inc., and the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce need to keep the valley's economic development on the "fast track."

But remember this: Benito Mussolni made Italy's trains "run on time."