NAACP questions Our Town fund

A report issued late last week by the Blair County branch of the NAACP has caused some consternation among local officials because it infers that the relationship between the Blair County District Attorney’s Office and Operation Our Town is fraught with ethical and possible legal issues.

The report, released by NAACP President Andrae M. Holsey, stated after a two-year investigation, the organization “has found evidence suggesting misconduct in the local district attorney’s office.”

Among the issues cited is the funding of Drug Task Force operations by Operation Our Town, a private, nonprofit organization that was formed by several Altoona-area business leaders in 2007 as a counter to the growing drug crime throughout the city and county.

Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks was also criticized in the report for urging members of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce to support Operation Our Town.

In a response, Weeks said he wasn’t soliciting funds for the private group during a March 2022 Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club meeting in which he urged local businesses to support OOT.

However, he strongly supports OOT, he said, because it provides badly needed funding for law enforcement operations that not only impact the distribution of drugs, but also helps temper violence associated with the drug trade.

Holsey, in his report sent out to news organizations and other NAACP organizations across the state, said he has been reviewing all cases handled by the NAACP during Don Witherspoon’s 30-year tenure.

It was a 2012 memorandum by Witherspoon, challenging the way Operation Our Town funds Drug Task Force operations, that caught the attention of the current NAACP administration, the announcement states.

Not a secret account

The NAACP report questioned a First National Bank account named “County of Blair Office of DA” that has never been reviewed by the county or its auditing firm.

The Blair NAACP “demands that the district attorney’s First National Bank Account be brought into the General Fund, and that all records since its inception be subject to public scrutiny,” the report states.

Weeks said there is nothing untoward about the Operation Our Town Special Operations Fund set up by the DA’s office, which is used to pay for items related to drug task force operations, such as overtime.

Weeks emphasized that he doesn’t control the account and doesn’t make decisions about what is paid from the account.

Instead, as the DA explained, requests for Operation Our Town money are made by police departments through a board that includes the police chiefs of Altoona, Logan Township, Tyrone, Hollidaysburg and a drug task force representative from the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General, which provides leadership for Blair County’s Drug Task Force.

The Task Force is composed of officers from the county’s police departments, detectives with the DA’s office and the AG’s office.

These are officers who devote themselves to drug interdiction after working a normal shift. Much of the payments through the account go for officer overtime, Weeks explained.

OOT also has contributed funds that help buy equipment and finance police investigations into large scale drug operations, he said.

Police credit the Operation Our Town funding with helping police take down drug gangs from surrounding metropolitan areas — Philadelphia, Baltimore, Buffalo, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and others.

OOT funds used on recent case

Weeks used a recent case to give an example of how the system works, stating that Altoona police discovered a woman in the trunk of a car.

The investigation rapidly expanded as more facts became available, he said, and police suspected several women were being used as part of a sex-trafficking ring in which the women were being forced to take drugs — methamphetamine, heroin and even embalming fluid.

They were raped multiple times per day, according to the charges filed in the case.

Altoona sought money from the Operation Our Town fund because 16 officers assigned to the case were on overtime as they executed search warrants and sought witnesses. That overtime added up to more than $4,000, Weeks explained.

Two Altoona men and a man from Pittsburgh were eventually charged with rape and human trafficking offenses.

The investigation would not have been possible without the overtime money from Operation Our Town, said the Blair DA.

The money, approved by the police board, is sent to the DA’s Special Operations Fund, and the checks are cut and distributed, Weeks explained.

‘Taking Back Our Neighborhoods’

Joseph Sheetz, the chairman of the board of the Sheetz Corp., explained this week how the Operation Our Town system came about.

In 2006, local business people wanted to address the increasing violence stemming from the drug trade and the organization adopted the motto “Taking Back Our Neighborhoods.”

It took a three-pronged approach in addressing the drug problem — funds for prevention, to agencies such as The Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation, Child Advocates of Blair County, the Booker T. Washington Revitalization Corp. and many more groups; funds to treatment organizations; and funds to law enforcement.

The money set aside for prevention and treatment involved applications from those organizations seeking funding.

How to distribute the money to law enforcement was more complex in view of the large number of departments, including the state police, the DA’s detectives and the composition of the drug task force, he explained.

Sheetz said Operation Our Town wanted no involvement in selecting the targets of the investigations, or the police officers and the respective departments doing the investigations.

“We don’t want any part of that,” he explained.

OOT, he said, was having a difficult time in its attempt to determine how the law enforcement money would be administered, so the district attorney at the time agreed that the DA’s office would administer the funds.

That’s the way the money, primarily for overtime and equipment, has been divided up for the many years since OOT came into existence, Sheetz said.

“We are 100 percent — 100 percent — certain the money is being used for the purpose it was granted,” he emphasized.

‘It’s not tax dollars’

Sheetz made another point that the money being administered by the district attorney is not tax money. Over the years it has come from contributions from local businesses, government grants and an annual golf tournament.

He said every year, OOT budgets a certain amount of money for law enforcement.

If the money is not spent, it goes back into the Operation Our Town for redistribution, Sheetz said.

When Sheetz became aware of the complaints against OOT partnering with law enforcement to attack the drug problem, he said, “I about fell off my chair.”

“I can’t figure out how we got dragged into the mud on this,” he said. “It’s not tax dollars.”

He said Holsey was invited to come to the OOT office to learn about the organization, but, Sheetz said, “he didn’t talk to us.”

Holsey, however, said he did meet with the Operation Our Town Board on Oct. 6, 2021, and addressed several issues, including concerns over the structure of the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board, a county organization that discusses issues involving the courts.

Holsey explained that he respects the jobs of law enforcement and public officials, but the “NAACP has a problem when constitutional rights are violated to secure convictions and money flows from private sources into public offices with no scrutiny.”

Accounting details sent

In summing up the controversy, Philip Devorris, president and CEO of Blair Companies, a founding member of Operation Our Town, said accounting details since OOT began have been sent to Holsey. In his report, Holsey noted requests for funds and checks paid out for OOT operations, but he pointed out “that there appears to be no correlation between operation size and the dollar amount requested.”

“OOT awards our grants on an application submitted by the Law Enforcement Group group of chiefs that lays out their needs in board terms,” Devorris said. “We get no case-level detail. We then pay bills as they are received up to the maximum amount of the grant, the same as we do with our other community grants.”

Also, one of Holsey’s demands was that the DA’s Special Operations Account become part of the county budget and be audited by County Controller A.C. Stickel.

Weeks said in an interview Monday that he had no problem with the controller auditing the account, noting it would take the burden off his office.

On Tuesday, Weeks approached Stickel with that idea, but Stickel indicated the OOT money is non-governmental money.

“I don’t have any responsibility in managing it within the county’s general ledger,” he explained.

But Stickel offered to do the auditing “for the good of the county and the taxpayers.”

The Blair controller noted that the account was set up years ago with guidance from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office.

The account has its own identification number and its sole purpose is to fund law enforcement activities, he said.

Weeks explained that the law cited by Holsey, Act 130 Section 1403 — that the NAACP maintains was violated — has the purpose of requiring the county to fund the DA’s office.

The Blair DA explained that the county does not fully fund the office. He has many vacancies on his staff and many expenses, such as the cost of a new case management system, come out of his annual budget. This is why the private money from Operation Our Town is so important, Weeks stated.

OOT helps provide money for an underfunded office, he stated, but “in no way do they direct who we prosecute.”

People have the right to oppose the aggressive approach taken by local law enforcement, but Weeks offered the alternatives: Do the people want a community where the law is enforced or do they want Philadelphia, Los Angeles or San Francisco?

“I dispute whether we are doing anything unethical or improper,” he said with respect to the alleged violations of the County Code or the Judicial Code of Ethics as is charged by the NAACP.

Seeking transparency

In an email announcing the local NAACP’s findings, Holsey said there are no control measures to regulate the use of the funds in the DA’s account. There is “little indication that they are being used for anything other than supplementing salary for local police officers,” the email states.

Holsey said there are “far more concerns to be expressed,” including alleged civil rights violations.

“We found that one family, the Piner family, was targeted at a higher level than any other Drug Court Defendants in the entirety of records since 2011,” Holsey wrote. “Reviews of public records indicate allegations of law enforcement misconduct by Kenneth and Stephen Piner may be founded. We have recommended them to appropriate sources to pursue legal remedies.”

He said the local NAACP petitioned the NAACP PA State Conference Legal Redress Committee for support. In addition, Holsey said the Blair County organization plans to report its findings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judicial Conduct Review Board and the Blair County Court of Common Pleas.

Kenneth and Stephen Piner, who have filed state and federal appeals, have been in prison for many years stemming from their convictions as part of a Baltimore-to-Altoona ring that processed and distributed cocaine from the former Corner Bar & Grille.

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