Former Scranton school administrator cleared of child endangerment charges sues district and investigators

Oct. 1 – A former Scranton school district administrator has been cleared of charges of exposing children to environmental hazards, claims other administrators conspired with investigators to wrongfully arrest him to deflect blame from ‘themselves.

In a federal lawsuit, former chief operating officer Jeff Brazil alleges that prosecutors withheld information proving he had committed no crime so they could prosecute and score political points for the US attorney general. Josh Shapiro, now the Democratic candidate for governor in the November general election.

They did so with the help of Superintendent Melissa McTiernan and former administrator Paul Dougherty, whose feigned ignorance of asbestos and high lead levels in several schools’ water helped convince a grand jury to recommend charges against Brazil, former maintenance supervisor Joseph Slack and former superintendent Alexis. Kirijan, Ed.D., says the suit.

“The plaintiff’s arrest was clearly orchestrated…as a ‘dog and pony’ show designed for maximum publicity,” Brazil’s attorney Joseph Guzzardo of Philadelphia said in the lawsuit. “They destroyed a man’s life for political purposes.”

The lawsuit comes days after Slack, who was also cleared of all charges, filed a federal lawsuit against the state attorney general’s office and several other defendants.

Brazil, Slack and Kirijan were charged on September 30, 2020 with endangering children and the public for allegedly failing to take action to address environmental issues. All charges against Brazil and Slack were dropped in June 2021. Kirijan was admitted to the county’s accelerated rehabilitation program on a single count of recklessly endangering another person.

Brazil’s lawsuit seeks damages for false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and conspiracy against McTiernan, Dougherty, the Scranton School Board, Special Agent Robert McHugh of the Attorney General’s Office, and the District Police Officer. State of Pennsylvania Michael Mulvey. He does not name Shapiro, his office or the state police as defendants.

School board attorney John Freund said the claims against him, McTiernan and Dougherty “have absolutely no factual basis or legal validity.” He noted that the school district, McTiernan and Dougherty were not the prosecuting agency.

Jacklin Rhoads, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said he supports the investigation.

“Our job is to pursue justice, and when new information emerged, we dismissed the charges against Mr. Brazil,” she said. “We will defend all allegations of wrongdoing to the fullest extent possible.”

Attempts to reach Dougherty, now the superintendent of the Tunkhannock School District, were unsuccessful.

Brazil’s lawsuit mirrors Slack’s claims that he was charged despite clear evidence that the two men took steps to ensure students and the public were not exposed to environmental hazards.

According to the lawsuit, Brazil learned of the high lead levels in January 2019 while on leave for an accident at work. He immediately emailed Slack and ordered it to disable the affected water coolers and sinks and Slack complied, placing signs over them. Investigators pressured Slack to state otherwise, but he refused, according to the lawsuit.

Despite this evidence, prosecutors told a grand jury that Brazil “took no steps” to clean up contaminated water sources.

The lawsuit says prosecutors also presented false and misleading information regarding asbestos, telling grand jurors that Brazil failed to fix the problem. Evidence shows it hired a contractor to conduct air quality testing in 2016 and 2019. All air quality reports, including those from 2019, revealed no threats to the health.

The lawsuit also blames McTiernan, who succeeded Kirijan as superintendent in August 2019, and Dougherty, who replaced Brazil after he resigned in March 2019.

According to the lawsuit, McTiernan and Dougherty said in January 2020 that they were never told about the environmental issues. It’s a lie, says the suit. He cites an August 22, 2019 email Candis Finan, the district’s collection officer, sent the council advising them to remove asbestos from a room at a school, but quality testing of the air revealed that there was no health risk.

The following week, Dougherty and McTiernan allowed students to return to all schools in the district despite possessing “the same air and water quality tests for which the defendants were later criminally prosecuted,” says the trial.

Prosecutors used the “fact” that McTiernan and Dougherty took immediate action to remedy the dangers in January 2020, to support the charges against Brazil and the other defendants, who marched before the media in handcuffs and shackles, according to the pursuit.

“The defendants created a false narrative and staged the above charade solely to generate a desired media story and, in the case of Dougherty/McTiernan, solely to shift the blame onto the plaintiff and away from themselves and of the school board,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for Brazil’s lost revenue and reputational damage, as well as punitive damages.

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Martha K. Merrill