Thursday, November 21, 2013

Implausible Deniability

Update 5/10/14: According to The Alternative Press, the subject of this article was found guilty of DUI on May 8. The correspondence she provided to superintendent Zerbe, and which the school district fought the release of until I won a Right to Know request, is here.  In a couple of email exchanges I had with Joyce subsequent to the publishing of this post, she maintained her original story. I still don't believe she understands that it is not the actual fact of the DUI itself that is troublesome, is it the misleading of the public about it by an elected official to whom we have given our trust. 
According to published reports in both the Lower Providence Patch (here) and the Times Herald (here), allegations of a February DUI in Florida are swirling around Methacton School Board president Joyce Petrauskas. This in and of itself may or may not be notable, but Petrauskas’ incredible tale about the alleged incident has raised interest in the story to a fever pitch.

The allegation first surfaced at an October 22 school board meeting, when former school board member Grant Shanbacher publicly asked Petrauskas to explain why a mug shot appearing to be her image (linked to Pinellas County in Florida) was available on the Internet and whether she had in fact been arrested for a DUI as suggested by the existence of the mug shot, along with a court docket in the same county listing details of the open case. For what it’s worth, it’s my understanding that Petrauskas’ daughter attends school in Clearwater, FL, which is in Pinellas County.
Depending on your viewpoint and tolerance for human imperfection, a recent DUI by a sitting school district leader may or may not be a big deal to you.  I am certainly aware that no one is perfect and to expect perfection in anyone is an exercise in futility.  And, my observation and experience has been that, excepting major crimes such as preying on children, homicide, armed robbery, etc., people are generally understanding and forgiving about mistakes, whether the subject is a public official or not, as long as they feel that someone has learned from it, not repeated it - and been honest about it.

This is where I pick up with the story.
According to published sources, when Petrauskas was first questioned about it at the October 22 meeting, she denied that she had been arrested for a DUI and claimed to be the victim of an "internet crime”.  Later, in an email to a Patch reporter, she indicated the information regarding her arrest was manipulated online and claimed that there had been an attempt to extort money from her. I understand another story was provided to the superintendant, her colleagues on the school board and their counsel.

You know what? At least in part, she is technically, kind of correct. There are companies out there whose entire business model involves filing numerous Right To Know requests with a municipality or county government, obtaining embarrassing information about people, and then publishing it on a website that they own and control. The information quickly becomes easily searchable, and they will then charge you a fee to have them remove it. While it’s hardly the most honorable way to make a living, it is legal. Many states, including Pennsylvania, are in the process of tightening up their Right To Know laws to make it more difficult for these entities to burden a government agency with such for-profit requests.
In Ms. Petrauskas’ case, I believe that is how her mug shot came to be found on the Internet. One of these sites,, had it posted (it has since been removed), and anyone could pay to have it removed for a fee of, I believe, $99.  In fact, had Ms. Petrauskas been aware of it, paid the fee and had it removed early on, this whole incident would likely never have come to light here in PA.
Photo credit: Times Herald
However, these entities cannot manufacture information or photographs. They buy and post mug shots or data that already exists from legitimate government agencies. If they didn’t, the liability insurance alone that they’d have to carry would be astronomical. Thus, her mug shot could not and would not have appeared on such a website if her mug shot hadn’t existed in the first place in Pinellas County for them to purchase. Another site that has mug shots from Pinellas County is  (Not all municipalities release them, but many do).
As to the rest of the story, documents I and others have obtained from Pinellas County indicate an open DUI case in Florida with Ms. Petrauskas as defendant. She has obtained counsel there, and the case is moving forward toward jury trial, which her counsel requested November 19.

I am posting the documents here and here; you be the judge. There are more available but I only requested a handful from the open docket that I felt would be most relevant.
Ms. Petrauskas has not yet been convicted of a DUI, but judging from these documents and the open docket in Pinellas County with numerous pleadings filed within it by her attorney and the prosecutor, she HAS obviously misrepresented (denied) that she was, in fact, arrested there on a DUI charge.

I assure you I contacted the legitimate Pinellas County Clerk of Courts office in Florida - the very same court system that processed accused child murderer Casey Anthony -  and can document that they and they alone deducted funds from my credit card to obtain these documents and then delivered them directly to me. Neither they, nor I, ‘manipulated’ anything. And, judging from the Motions to Supress filed in this case, there exists a 911 telephone call audiotape, a videotape from one of the on-scene officer’s patrol cars, and a certified copy of the booking photo, all of which were provided to Petrauskas’s Florida attorney.  I don’t see how those could be ‘manipulated’ either. (The judge denied the Motions).
Also, the records indicate that Petrauskas was fingerprinted. How on earth would any Internet company fake those?
We now live in an age where pretty much everything we do and say is recorded for posterity somewhere. On any given day, the average street one walks or drives down has anywhere from 4 to a dozen security and/or traffic cameras trained on it, and then there’s satellites, webcams on laptops, cellphones that can capture audio and video…and who knows what the federal government is collecting.  
I get it that some people aren’t necessarily Internet savvy – and it would appear that perhaps Ms. Petrauskas is one of those - but to presume that the vast majority of the population is so unsophisticated as to not be able to easily discover this information and dismiss this hokey ‘manipulation’ claim is, I think, insulting and illustrative of the level of disrespect she (and/or her advisors) apparently has for the taxpayers, parents, and residents she represents.  
Whether they like it or not, public officials are held to a higher standard – particularly those in education - and the public must have faith that those they elect to represent them will be honest with them.  Incidents like this make people question what else they are being lied to about.
When this story first broke I called our LP Republican party municipal leader, Jim Van Horn, and gave my opinion as a Republican committeeperson (I don’t believe I was the only one to do so). That opinion was that, if this story was at all true, the leaders of our party needed to have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with Petrauskas and advise her to either come clean immediately or step down. My fear is that going forward, aside from being a terrible example for the students of the Methacton School District, we as a party risk losing credibility going forward with voters whenever we endorse candidates for these and other elected positions if it appears that we support misleading the public and are not willing to make the tough calls to address it.  Retaining control of a position cannot be more important than integrity. As you can probably guess, that suggestion went nowhere.  That’s disappointing.

By all accounts Ms. Petrauskas is a personable, conscientious, hardworking, knowledgeable asset to the Methacton School Board.  As president, she does a good job in a difficult position. Anyone could find themselves in her situation, but it may not be too late for her to admit that this did happen and explain why she has thus far represented otherwise.

Photo credit: Lower Providence Patch

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