Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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For the past five years, a Lower Southampton deputy state constable charged with using his private businesses as part of a money laundering scheme hasn't filed mandatory documents that require the listing of outside financial interests of publicly elected officials, according to the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission.
The executive director of the commission on Thursday said the agency has opened a formal investigation into whether Bernard Rafferty, 62, intentionally avoided filing the disclosures to conceal a conflict of interest. Intentionally withholding information in a statement of financial interest is a misdemeanor crime that carries a potential penalty of a $2,500 fine or a year in prison.
Rafferty opened at least two businesses after he stopped filing the required financial disclosure forms, according to state business and ethics commission records. One of the businesses — Raff’s Consulting — figures prominently in the U.S. Attorney's money-laundering case involving Rafferty and two co-defendants.
Rafferty, along with District Judge John Waltman, 59, of Lower Southampton, and Lower Southampton Director of Public Safety Robert P. Hoopes, 69, of Doylestown, were indicted by a grand jury earlier this month in federal court in Philadelphia for conspiring to launder $400,000 believed to be proceeds of health care fraud, illegal drug trafficking and bank fraud, according to an indictment.
The men are accused of conspiracy to commit money laundering and aiding and abetting money laundering, and they have been suspended without pay from their respective positions. Each remains free on $50,000 unsecured bail while awaiting a Jan. 5 formal arraignment in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
Authorities allege the men received $80,000 in fees from undercover agents posing as criminals seeking to turn dirty money into clean cash. The alleged crimes took place between June 2015 and this past November, according to the federal indictment.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Brian Puricelli, the attorney of record for Rafferty, for comment Thursday. Hoopes has no attorney of record listed with the U.S. Attorney's Office. Louis Busico, who represents Waltman, said his client “completely and adamantly” denies all the allegations.
Rafferty failed to submit the annual financial interest statements since 2011, a situation the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission office became aware of in August, according to Robert Caruso, the commission’s executive director. The commission filed an enforcement action against Rafferty that same month, but he failed to file the statements within 20 days of the sending of the notice of noncompliance, Caruso said. A second notice is being prepared, as required under the law, Caruso said.
The State Ethics Commission fined Rafferty $50 in October 2000 for failing to file his 1998 statement of financial interest, according to public records.
The commission is responsible for conducting compliance checks with municipal and state officials who are required to file the financial interest statements, which detail any outside direct or indirect sources of income, gifts, real estate interests or other items local and state public officials receive.
Caruso said his office receives a list of the state’s constables and deputy constables, who are elected by the public, from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The list is used to send reminders about filing the financial interest statement annually, he said.
This news organization obtained copies of Rafferty’s financial disclosure statements covering the calendar years of 2002 through 2010 through a Right to Know request. Rafferty has been a deputy constable in Lower Southampton since 1993. He previously worked under Waltman, who was a constable before he was appointed the district judge for the magisterial court in Lower Southampton in 2010.
A review of those previous years’ forms found that Rafferty listed financial interest in a for-profit business in his 2002 statement, but the handwritten name of the business is illegible. The business address was listed as 2304 Brownsville Road, which is the location of the Eastern Dawn mobile home park, where Rafferty lives, according to county records.
None of the previous disclosure statements listed any outside employment, transportation, lodging, gifts, or real estate interests. Constables and deputy constables are not barred from operating an outside business, but such an enterprise must be disclosed, Caruso said.
Rafferty’s most recent statement was filed in January 2011 for the previous year, and in May 2011, he registered Raff's Consulting with the Pennsylvania Department of State, records show.
Available public documents offer little insight into what kind of consulting work Rafferty performed, and both the company’s website and Facebook page were deleted shortly after the indictment was unsealed. Raff’s Consulting’s former Facebook page stated that the company provides, among other things, accountants, business mergers, venues, real estate, loans/banking, photography and travel.
Rafferty also registered another business with the state, R & R Publishing LLC, in February, according to public records. On the former Facebook page, Rafferty promoted R & R Publishing and a magazine it was producing called “Hamptons TM.”
Rafferty and his consulting business received a consulting credit in four YouTube videos filmed last year and produced by a Lower Southampton photo studio. Raff’s Consulting also participated in other photo and video work with the same photo studio, according to the business’ Facebook page.
State records for Raff’s Consulting LLC list its address as 1331 O’Reilly Drive in Lower Southampton, but Raff’s Consulting’s business website listed its address as Hoopes' former Doylestown law office. County property records show Hoopes sold the office in May to New Hope Capital Investors LLC in Horsham.
In a statement of financial interests provided by Lower Southampton and signed by Hoopes in April, no list of gifts or real estate interests were listed. He was hired Feb. 10 as director of public safety for the township, replacing former police Chief William Wiegman Jr., who retired in December.
Waltman’s statements of financial interest, which are held by the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, are being sought by this news organization.
According to the grand jury indictment, in each of three incidents, Hoopes withdrew money from his bank account, deposited it into Raff’s Consulting’s account at the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, and Rafferty then obtained a check drawn on the business account in an amount equal to 80 percent of the total cash to be laundered for undercover officers, authorities allege.
Waltman, Hoopes and Rafferty then allegedly obtained bogus documents, including invoices to Raff’s Consulting, nondisclosure agreements, consulting agreements, zoning applications, land surveys and other “sham” documents, which provided a pretext for their money laundering, according to court documents. Waltman was present during at least one of the dirty money exchanges, the feds allege.
The three defendants met three times with undercover officers and exchanged a check and "documents" for a bag filled with at least $100,000.
Authorities allege that Hoopes conducted the transactions with the officers while Waltman and Rafferty waited in Rafferty's car.
Bucks and Montgomery county coroners are seeing a record-breaking number of drug-related deaths this year — so many that both offices are running over budget for autopsy-related supplies and services.
Both counties anticipate the number of drug-related deaths will nearly double this year compared to 2015, a trend largely blamed on the wide availability of cheap and powerful illegal opiates in the Philadelphia region, especially the black market version of the powerfulsynthetic prescription painkiller fentanyl. Earlier this month alone, eight overdose deaths involving suspected opiates occurred in Falls and Bristol Township over an 11-day span.
In Montgomery County, 116 accidental drug overdoses accounted for nearly half of all the 254 coroner cases the first six months of this year, the most recent statistics available, according to First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki. In 2015, they accounted for roughly 30 percent of cases for the entire year.
Opiates were present in 90 percent of those drug-related deaths through June, Balacki said. Seventy deaths were considered heroin-related during the first six months of 2016, a number that nearly matches the total number of heroin deaths for all of 2015. Fentanyl alone was found in 30 percent of drug-related accidental deaths the first six months of this year. And the opiate antidote Narcan was found in the blood of 16 of those who overdosed in 2016.
While the antidote doesn't always work, “We would be buried if we didn’t have Narcan, that is for sure,” Balacki added.
Nearly one-quarter, or 137, of the 680 cases the Bucks County Coroner’s Office has handled through Thursday have involved accidental drug-related deaths, a record high number, according to Coroner Dr. Joseph Campbell.
Campbell estimates that roughly 75 percent of those deaths involved heroin or other opiates. Another 28 cases are pending toxicology results and he anticipates at least half will be drug-related deaths.
Last year a total of 89 drug-related deaths occurred in Bucks County.
“This is a stunning increase for one year,” Campbell added. “That is a monumental leap from last year.”
Campbell anticipates the county will hit at least 150 accidental drug-related deaths before the end of the year once toxicology results are returned. But he suspects some drug-related deaths were missed.
Hospitals don’t keep blood drawn during initial emergency room admissions for longer than a week, so if a person is admitted but doesn’t die for a few weeks no blood is available for drug testing, Campbell said.
“There are a number of cases like that,” he added.
The dramatic rise in drug-related deaths translates into an increase in autopsies, which has taken a toll on the budgets of both coroner offices. They are seeing higher costs for toxicology testing, supplies and employee overtime. Both county coroner offices requested an increase in budget line items for next year worried the trend would continue.
Bucks County’s Campbell's office exhausted its budget for post-mortem expenses last month and he estimated his office will be at least $15,000 to $20,000 over budget this year.
“More volume begets more expenses,” Campbell added.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching Montgomery County’s financial director for comment on the budget situation, but Balacki pointed out that increasingly sophisticated tests for fentanyl derivatives are not cheap. The county also contracts with pathologists who are paid by the case. Costs also are associated with transporting bodies to the morgue.
In his budget for next year, Balacki requested a 25 percent increase in the provider services line item, including autopsies, supplies and toxicology and related testing. But another year like 2016 could have him requesting even more money from the county commissioners next year.
“If we get hit really hard again, we’re going to need more personnel,” he said. “And it’s not slowing down, that I can tell you that.”
Michael Cosdon (center) with his family and new fake tree
Posted December 18, 2016
Ever since he was a kid, Michael Cosdon has dreaded one thing about the Christmas season: the respiratory infection he'd get.
The symptoms, including coughing and congestion, would appear about five days after his family decorated its fresh-cut evergreen tree, a tradition he continued when he started his own family. By the time Christmas Day arrived, he would have full-blown bronchitis. After New Year's Day, he'd feel better.
Until this year, Cosdon never saw a connection with his family's holiday centerpiece and his illness, though he is allergic to mold and pet dander.
“I thought it was wintertime, no big deal," the Bedminster man said.
It turns out he's allergic to Christmas. Well, not the holiday exactly, but one of its biggest symbols.
He isn’t the only one suffering, either, according to area doctors. For people with allergies and chronic respiratory conditions, the weeks before Christmas can be the most miserable time of the year.
While live Christmas trees are a big culprit, they aren’t the only one, according to allergy specialists. The scent of cinnamon, sugar plums or candles can trigger mysterious coughing fits and trouble breathing. Arranging poinsettias or pine rope decorations can result in a sudden red and itchy rash. Getting house decorations out of storage can cause scratchy throats and watery eyes.
“They complain, but they don’t know (the cause),” said Dr. Maria Lania-Howarth, who heads the division of allergy-immunology at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey.
Typically, during the two weeks before Christmas Day, Lania-Howarth sees an uptick in calls to her office involving sinus pain, wheezing, sneezing, itchy eyes and scratchy throats. A brief patient history often traces the onset of symptoms to not long after Christmas decorating began, according to her and other doctors.
Allergies affect as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children, and mold allergies specifically affect about 15 percent of people, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergic disease, including asthma, is the fifth-leading chronic disease in the U.S. in people of all ages and the third-most common chronic disease in children under 18 years old.
Pine trees harbor Aspergillus mold, which is found on decaying plant vegetation and can enter and grow inside a person’s airways, making it hard to breathe. Pine tree sap also contains substances that can irritate the skin and mucous membranes.
A few studies on so-called Christmas Tree Syndrome confirm that mold on fresh-cut evergreen trees can trigger severe asthma attacks, fatigue, sinus congestion and other allergy symptoms.
State University of New York's Upstate Medical University researchers found 53 kinds of mold on 26 pine needle and bark samples from live pine trees, according to a 2011 study published in the Annals of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. The study found most of the molds were allergens that could trigger reactions in infants. The respiratory illness symptoms peaked around Dec. 25, give or take a week.
Those results mirror a 2007 study in which Connecticut scientists found mold levels five times above normal two weeks after a fresh Christmas tree was placed in a room. The tree was set up 10 feet from a heat vent, and the indoor temperature was maintained at between 65 and 68 degrees.
The earlier study found that, three days after a live tree was put in a room, the spore count was 800 grains per cubic meter of air over 24 hours. Normal mold spore counts are under 1,000 spores per square meter. After the fourth day, the mold counts started rising, reaching a maximum of 5,000 spores per square meter by the 14th day, the study found.
The mold occurs within days after a fresh pine tree is cut. Evergreens have a high moisture content and mold thrives in moisture. Once the tree is placed in a water-filled stand, bacteria forms and clogs the tree's vascular tissue and it starts to decay. The process is accelerated when trees are brought into homes with central heating.
“If you get a cold the same time each year, and notice it’s after you bring out the Christmas ornaments, there may be a correlation,” said Dr. Robert Danoff, a family medical specialist at Aria-Jefferson Health System, which has a campus in Falls.
Asthma is a bronchial condition caused by spasms in the lungs that can interfere with breathing. The condition is triggered by allergies for about half of those with asthma, though sufferers might not realize the symptoms they experience around the holidays are really an allergic reaction.
The triggers and reactions can vary — and Christmas trees aren't the only culprit, Danoff said. For example, one of his patients gets migraine headaches triggered by the smell of strongly scented balsa candles.
Other allergy specialists agreed that strong smells from candles and room sprays — along with dust on stored decorations — also can trigger symptoms.
Pine and cinnamon scents, in particular, can result in a flare-up for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly called COPD, according to Kim Ryan, a respiratory therapist and pulmonary rehab coordinator at Grand View Health in West Rockhill.
She estimates 90 percent of her patients are especially sensitive to candles with heavy, synthetic or chemical scents.At Grand View's rehab, there is an artificial Christmas tree decorated for the holidays, she said.
“Their faces light up when they see this tree. At home, most don’t even decorate because they can’t,” Ryan said. “It’s sad.”
Some people choose small ceramic trees they can dust, she said. Others decorate an outdoor evergreen. Some go artificial.
Two weeks ago, Cosdon did what he once thought was the unthinkable: He bought a fake Christmas tree.
“I got the realest-looking fake tree I could find,” he said.
So far, Cosdon said that he hasn't experienced any of the usual pre-Christmas sinus symptoms.
“I think inside I always knew — I have a complicated relationship with my allergies,” he added.
Curbing Christmas Allergies
Live Christmas tree, poinsettias, pine rope
If you want a real pine tree clean it before bringing it indoors. Shake off as much debris as possible; use a leaf blower or air compressor to remove debris, pollen and mold spores. Then blast the tree with a garden hose or sprayer, especially the trunk. Set it in a bucket of water in a covered porch or garage for a few days until it dries.
Wear gloves and long sleeves when carrying the tree or pine rope into the house. Avoid sap touching your skin.
Avoid keeping a live tree in the house longer than one week, definitely no longer than two weeks.
Opt for a Leyland Cypress evergreen, which is less allergy inducing variety.
Poinsettia are festive but they also contain compounds similar to the ones found in latex so avoid the plant if you are allergic to latex.
Artificial trees and decorations
Use gloves and wear a dust mask when removing decorations from attic or basement.
Avoid the spray snow flock on tree and windows. Aerosolized chemicals irritate eyes, nose, and lungs and can trigger symptoms in asthma sensitive individuals.
Wipe down the tree and ornaments at the end of the season and wrap your artificial tree and secure it in a cool and dry place.
Smells like Christmas
Candles that are heavily scented with synthetic fragrances and chemicals that that can emit fumes and soot that irritate breathing and trigger allergies and asthma.
Avoid petroleum based candles for ones made with soybean, palm, hemp or beeswax and that are scented with essential oils.
Go sparingly with the scented aerosol sprays and air fresheners. They can release noxious chemicals that can irritate the eyes and airways of individuals with allergies or asthma. Instead opt for natural potpourri like cinnamon sticks and cloves.
Make sure to have a professional check your fireplace, wood burning stove and chimney to make sure it’s in good working shape. Hidden cracks, creosote buildup or venting problems that can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Opt for seasoned hardwood, which burns slow and even so it produces less smoke and fumes.
For asthma sufferers it’s best to avoid firing up the fireplace since ash and smoke can trigger an attack.
Source Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Dr. Robert Danoff Aria-Jefferson Health system
A 36-acre Upper Makefield horse farm at the center of a bitter multi-million dollar legal dispute will be put up for sale and the proceeds placed in escrow until the court decides how to divide the money between the former business partners.
The settlement involving Hickory Run Farm was formally reached in Bucks County Court during what was supposed to be an eviction hearing Monday.
The farm business' minority owner, Patricia "Penny" Silcox, who is also the majority owner of a company that owns the land, had filed a complaint in September seeking to evict business majority owners and Upper Makefield residents Michael and Michelle Gara. The Garas, former farm clients, sued Silcox earlier this year, alleging she reneged on a verbal agreement to sell them the farm in exchange for a stake in their new business worth no more than $150,000. The farm was appraised last year at $1.5 million.
Patricia "Penny" Silcox
But the Garas’ attorney, Neal Jacobs, told Bucks County Judge Robert Mellon Monday that his clients would agree to liquidating the farm business and land and using the money for repayment. He added that Silcox’s brother, Roy Silcox Jr., who has 25 percent interest in the company that owns the land, previously had expressed interest in selling the property.
“We think that is a solution worthy of consideration,” Jacobs said.
Silcox’s attorney, Daniel Sweetser, said his client also was interested in selling the 36-acre property — but not at auction — and would move forward immediately if the Garas vacate.
Mellon suggested that the parties agree that the property cannot be sold for less than the higher of two professional appraisals, and the property would be sold to the highest bidder. The amount of the second appraisal wasn't provided Monday.
Both sides met in the judge’s chambers with Mellon for three hours to hammer out the details of the pending sale. Afterward, Sweetser said the property will be sold “as expeditiously as possible,” and the money from the sale will be placed in an escrow account for future disbursement, which likely could be the subject of additional court hearings. The Garas can remain on the property until settlement.
A temporary restraining order placed against Silcox in July remains in effect; the order prevents Silcox from taking any action involving the farm and restricts her movement on the property. But Jacobs said the order will be modified to allow Silcox to be on the property when potential buyers are present.
Silcox, a well-known horse trainer in the Philadelphia region, ran Hickory Run Farm alone for 30 years until January, when she gave the Garas 75 percent ownership in the farm business in exchange for a promise to reduce a mortgage she has with them. Silcox retained 25 percent ownership in Hickory Run Farm, and she and her brother Roy own the land where the farm is located through a company called RSPC Inc.
The Garas contend that Silcox made a verbal agreement with them in May 2015 to consolidate Hickory Run Farm and RSPC Inc. and transfer both of the businesses into a new company owned by the Garas, Newtown Equestrian Center, according to a July lawsuit filed against Silcox in Bucks County Court. The Garas hold 90 percent ownership interest in Newtown Equestrian Center. Silcox would hold 10 percent and continue to work on the farm as a full-time horse trainer.
The Garas allege they invested $1.3 million into the failing farm’s operations and to pay off Silcox’s personal and professional debts. The couple contends that Silcox took two private mortgage loans with them using the farm property as collateral that would be satisfied after she transferred the businesses into the Newtown Equestrian Center.
Silcox denies that she agreed to either partner with the Garas or sell them her financially troubled farm, according to Sweetser. She also denies signing a second, open-ended mortgage for nearly $890,000 with the Garas three months after she signed a $309,000 mortgage with them.
The pending settlement has no impact on other lawsuits the Garas have filed, including one against Silcox and more than a dozen against individuals or businesses dubbed in court documents as “Penny’s Vigilantes.” The couple claim the defendants conspired with Silcox to interfere with their operation of the farm, costing them $25,000 a month in lost business.
The suit alleges the defendants “went out of their way to engage in a civil conspiracy to harm, annoy, harass, defame, injure, damage, and if possible, bankrupt the plaintiffs and their respective business interests” after learning the Garas had fired Silcox as a trainer, barred her from the farm property and sued her.
The “vigilante” suit seeks $6.1 million in damages and an injunction to bar the defendants from acts that include organizing boycotts of the farm and raising money for Silcox’s legal fees under “false pretenses.” Sweetser told Mellon on Monday that an anonymous benefactor that has no involvement in the case is paying half of Silcox’s legal fees and the Philadelphia law firm Blank Rome is doing work pro bono.
StoneMor Partners, the nation’s second-largest U.S. operator of cemeteries and funeral homes, is the subject of a class-action lawsuit that alleges executives of the Bensalem business intentionally misled investors with earnings data designed to inflate the company's profits.
Texas resident Judson Anderson filed the lawsuit Nov. 21 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on behalf of himself and other investors who bought the company’s publicly traded securities between Jan. 19, 2012, and Oct. 27, 2016.
The suit states the 2012 date signifies the earliest statement StoneMor publicly made about its profits that fell within the five-year statute of limitations for taking this legal action against the company. The second date is when the company issued a press release announcing its quarterly investor cash distributions would be halved for the third quarter of 2016, dropping from 66 cents to 33 cents a unit, according to the lawsuit. With a publicly traded limited partnership, a unit is similar to a share of stock.
This news organization was unsuccessful in reaching StoneMor representatives for comment Thursday or Friday.
Named as defendants are: StoneMor Partners L.P.; CEO, President, founder and board Chairman Lawrence Miller; Chief Financial Officer Sean P. McGrath; Robert B. Hellman Jr., a company director; and Timothy Yost, former StoneMor CFO.
StoneMor Partners is the only publicly traded operator of cemeteries and funeral homes traded as a limited partnership on a U.S. stock exchange, according to Anderson’s attorney, Christopher Nelson, of the Weiser Law Firm in Berwyn. StoneMor had 35.5 million units available to buy; Anderson holds 6,500 units, Nelson said.
The suit alleges that StoneMor issued “materially false and/or misleading” statements about its finances and reported financial information that “ ... concealed the truth about its less-than-rosy financial condition.”
The suit alleges StoneMor wooed investors with a public image of a desirable long-term investment because it consistently paid quarterly cash distributions to unit holders, which gave the appearance of financial stability, Nelson said. Between Jan. 25, 2012, and July 25, 2016, quarterly distributions grew from 58 cents a unit to 66 cents a unit, the complaint states.
To do so, the suit contends, StoneMor issued new securities and used the revenue to pay existing investors. “StoneMor has never in any year generated sufficient cash flow from its operations to make the company distributions,” the suit alleges.
Instead, the suit states, StoneMor raised $508 million from investors since 2005 and paid out $422 million in distributions to unit holders. The suit alleges the company has earned $54 million in cash since its initial public offering in 2007.
“As long as the company was able to keep selling high-yield securities to new investors, StoneMor were able to continue making distributions to old investors and the managers of the scheme,” the suit alleges.
StoneMor reported decreasing cash flows and earnings figures for the first time in August 2016. A month later, the company notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would have to restate its consolidated financial statements for the years ending Dec. 31, 2012 through 2015, as well as the first two quarters of 2016 “to correct certain accounting errors,” the suit said.
StoneMor owns or manages 317 cemeteries and 105 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico. In 2014, StoneMor took over management of the 13 cemeteries owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, including four in Bucks and eastern Montgomery counties, under a 60-year lease and management agreement that cost the company $53 million up front, plus $36 million in future payments. The local cemeteries under its management are Ressurection Cemetery in Bensalem, All Saints Cemetery in Newtown Township and St. John Neumann Cemetery in Chalfont, all in Bucks County, and Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Montgomery County. Locally, StoneMor also owns Sunset Memorial Park in Lower Southampton