John Yuknavich won’t be fire chief much longer, as he prepares to add a few new titles before his name.
Among them? Thief. Felon. And quite possibly, federal inmate.
The controversial head of the Wilkes-Barre Township Volunteer Fire Department on Thursday reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors admitting to stealing department funds, under which he must make $45,000 in restitution and resign his position within 10 days.
Yuknavich, 51, also faces up to 10 years in prison.
The plea agreement must be approved by U.S. District Court. Senior U.S. District Judge Edwin M. Kosik scheduled an arraignment and plea hearing for 10 a.m. Sept. 25 in Scranton, according to court documents.
Efforts to reach Yuknavich and his public defender, Ingrid Cronin, were not immediately successful on Thursday.
Township Mayor Carl Kuren was not available when a reporter called the municipal offices Thursday, an official said. A message left for Kuren was not immediately returned, and efforts to reach him at his home also were unsuccessful.
Federal law prohibits theft of $5,000 or more from local government programs that receive more than $10,000 in federal funds annually, the crime to which Yuknavich is expected to plead guilty.
Yuknavich’s alleged activities previously resulted in two separate cases that remain pending in Luzerne County Court. Hours after news broke of Yuknavich’s federal plea, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis announced plans to withdraw those cases.
Township resident Yuknavich initially was charged by state police at Wyoming and county detectives in December 2011, alleging he had stolen more than $11,000 from the fire department and used the department’s Sam’s Club card for personal use. He was again charged in August 2013 after an audit of the fire department’s accounts allegedly showed more than $48,000 was missing.
The case filed in December 2011 has been delayed pending an appeal the district attorney’s office filed with the state Superior Court after Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. prohibited prosecutors from introducing 15 bounced checks.
The other case, filed in August 2013, remains scheduled for jury selection and a hearing on Tuesday before county Judge Michael T. Vough.
According to a statement from the office of Peter Smith, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania:
• A criminal information has been filed in U.S. District Court in Scranton, charging Yuknavich with stealing more than $5,000 from the fire department and Wilkes-Barre Township in the course of his duties as chief of that fire department between 2008 and 2011.
• Yuknavich was responsible for ensuring the deposit of monthly funds received from Wilkes-Barre Township, as well as all other funds received either through charitable contributions or annual state aid.
• Yuknavich allegedly deposited only part of the monthly $3,500 check received from Wilkes-Barre Township intended to pay fire department bills, and took the remainder of the check in cash, most of which he used for his personal benefit.
As previously reported:
• In December 2011 state police charged Yuknavich with taking $11,865 through multiple withdrawals from the fire department’s accounts, and with making $3,706 in personal purchases with the fire department’s Sam’s Club credit card.
A jury in that case was selected last year. But the case, before Sklarosky was delayed while prosecutors appealed several issues, notably Sklarosky’s ruling on the bounced checks.
In an opinion issued in April, state Superior Court agreed that prosecutors are prohibited from using the bounced checks against Yuknavich because they would “confuse and mislead the jury.”
• Last August, state police filed new charges after learning that a state auditor getting ready for the first trial allegedly uncovered additional missing funds in the case.
Prosecutors said that on several dates between 2008 and 2012, Yuknavich took fire department checks to be deposited at the Wilkes-Barre City Employee’s Federal Credit Union, where the fire department had an account. But he often deposited only part of the checks, taking some or all of the money in cash, investigators say, and diverting $48,712 to himself over that period.
That is the case before Vough.
Last week, attorney Barry Dyller, who is representing Yuknavich in the state cases, filed a motion claiming the District Attorney’s Office has failed to bring his client to trial within one year of his arrest, as required under state law, thus Yuknavich is entitled to dismissal.
According to the response filed Friday by Assistant District Attorney Mary G. Phillips, a period of more than two months earlier this year should not be calculated against the Commonwealth because Yuknavich’s pre-trial motions were not disposed of by the court until April 2.
Vough is scheduled to hear Dyller’s request to dismiss on Tuesday.
Thursday’s developments appear to mark an end to one of the most significant cases facing Yuknavich, but the allegations involving the fire department were neither his first brush with the law nor his last outstanding legal battle.
In addition to a history of harassment, public drunkenness and driving under the influence charges extending back at least to 1998, Yuknavich remains the focus of two open cases.
In March, township resident Joseph Naperkowski sued Yuknavich and the department in county court, claiming a camera mounted on department property is aimed at his home and invading his privacy. That case remains open.
And in May, Yuknavich was slapped with a non-traffic trespassing citation over a May 1 incident in which he allegedly trespassed on Naperkowski’s property.
Yuknavich pleaded not guilty to that charge on June 12. A non-jury trial before District Judge Diana Malast is set for Thursday, Sept. 4.
In a telephone interview with The Times Leader on Thursday, Naperkowski expressed a guarded pleasure at the news.
“Well, it’s finally turned around,” Naperkowski said. “I’m satisfied, to a point.”
“He stole money from the people,” Naperkowski added. “There are a lot of elderly people up here who are on fixed incomes, Social Security.”
Naperkowski also set his sights on Kuren.
“He’s the one who always protected and defended” Yuknavich, Naperkowski said. “Mayor Carl Kuren has to resign now.”
A woman who answered the door at Kuren’s house later Thursday afternoon said he was not available.
Although the fire department’s SUV designated for the fire chief’s use and three personal vehicles were parked along the side of and behind the fire company on Thursday afternoon, no one answered the side door when a reporter rang the bell.
As the reporter turned the corner at the front of the building, the front door to the social hall was being pulled shut. No one answered that door either when a reporter knocked on it seconds later. All doors to the building were locked.
Attempts to reach someone at the fire hall by phone also were unsuccessful.
Township Council President Gerald Shiner did not immediately return a voice mail message left at his home.
Staff writer Steve Mocarsky contributed to this report.
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