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County executive's 'personal gift' brings up resentment over Gracedale issue

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Feb 07 2013 10:51:00 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 07 2013 10:52:44 PM CST
EASTON, Pa. -

Resentment continues to linger over the Northampton County executive's role in the attempted sale of the Gracedale nursing home more than two years ago.

The divisive issue surfaced again at Thursday night's county council meeting when county executive John Stoffa attempted to give what he called "a personal gift" of $700 to council, and all eight members in attendance spurned it, albeit for various reasons.

Stoffa said in an email to council that he was donating the money to fulfill a pledge he made at county council's meeting a few weeks ago, after a December memorandum from the county controller hinted at "some type of criminal behavior" on Stoffa's part in spending taxpayer money to fight the Coalition of Alzheimer's Families, a citizens and labor group trying to block the sale of Gracedale.

In his email, Stoffa said the accusations of the coalition, as well as those made by the county controller and a member of council, were "ridiculous," adding, "I did nothing wrong other than to abide by the mandate [from council] at the time to sell Gracedale."

He also pointed out that the matter has been investigated by the district attorney; has been the subject of a private court case, and has gone through the legal system all the way to the state Supreme Court. "The charges were dismissed at every level," Stoffa wrote. "They are completely unfounded."

Stoffa said he hoped the gift would help put the accusations to rest so he could focus on more pressing county matters, including final plans for a centralized human services building, fixing deteriorating bridges, and making improvements at Gracedale and repairs at the Courthouse.

Before council took up Stoffa's offer, the leader of the Coalition of Alzheimer's Families, the Rev. Mario Martinez of Forks Township, made an emotional plea to reject it during the courtesy of the floor.

"What we once thought to be true is true. There were tax dollars used improperly," Martinez said in a quavering voice. "Any 'gift' should be rejected, because it came here as a lie. He [Stoffa] lied to the taxpayers of this county."

Martinez advised council to censure Stoffa and then ask for his resignation.

Three council members weighed in on Stoffa's gift before the vote.

Bruce Gilbert said, "I don't think the county executive should have to do this. Mr. Stoffa has great pride in the county. ... It's a wonderful gesture, but I don't think it's fair."

Thomas Dietrich questioned Stoffa's motivations. "Is it to absolve himself? Is it to pay off someone to stop berating him?" He also wondered how it would appear if council accepted the gift. "Did we accept money [to] brush this under the rug? And why do we need to accept anything if he's innocent?"

Lamont McClure said he hoped Stoffa's offer would help council to "not be mired in the past, but to move forward. It's time for this to be over." But, McClure said, the tone of Stoffa's email made it impossible. "There's no contrition here," he noted with some exasperation.

McClure added that he believed Stoffa did "nothing criminal," but if what Stoffa did was a misuse of taxpayers money, his offer couldn't be a gift, "it could only be a reimbursement."

After the meeting, Martinez told WFMZ.com that the coalition will try to interest the state attorney general and auditor general in the case.

Stoffa said, "I've done nothing wrong. I'm tired of hearing about it. My conscience is clear."