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.