An arbiter’s ruling that reinstated a fired Mercer County Jail guard has been overturned in common pleas court.

Visiting Senior Judge Paul H. Millin, who presided over the case locally, last week vacated the March 2 decision of arbiter John M. Felice that had ordered Mercer County to rehire Walter Weir Jr. with full back pay.

Weir was fired June 9, 2005, after county officials alleged he helped cover up a series of incidents over contraband. Another guard carried pipe tobacco into the old county jail in Mercer on May 15, 2005. The violation got a second guard fired and two other guards suspended.

District Attorney James P. Epstein, the county prison board’s president, was pleased with the ruling.

“I believe the decision reaffirms the prison board’s ability to set professional standards for our staff in the prison and to effectively manage the prison,” he said.

Weir, a Pymatuning Township supervisor who worked for the county for more than six years, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Weir’s attorney, Ernest B. Orsatti of Pittsburgh, said the ruling was wrong and he planned to appeal it to Commonwealth Court. Orsatti argued that Millin overstepped his bounds by vacating an arbitration award that’s presumed to be final and binding.

“What the judge did was wrong,” Orsatti said. “He basically put himself in the role of an arbitrator and decided it the way he thought it should be decided. And that’s not what he’s supposed to do.”

Under the prevailing statute, Orsatti continued, “final and binding decisions are supposed to be given great deference and this judge didn’t.”

For Felice, the case appeared to hinge on the credibility of Weir and two other guards who were involved. Millin elected not to “disturb credibility determinations” made by Felice and instead focused on the fact he believed Felice ignored Weir’s admitted wrongdoing.

Weir, a sergeant who was the officer in charge that night, admitted that he allowed an inmate to be in the medical room alone with a visiting nurse in violation of jail policy, Millin wrote.

Weir also admitted filing an inaccurate or incomplete report about an officer being stationed with the nurse while she treated the inmate. Weir later testified part of his statement that a male guard was with the nurse actually pertained to May 16, a day later.

“Even accepting this highly questionable position as true makes the report inaccurate as leaving out critical information and Weir guilty of violating jail policy by allowing an inmate to be in the medical room alone with a female nurse,” Millin wrote. “The importance of this jail policy is obvious even to someone not trained in running a corrections facility.”

The implications were even more profound in this case, Millin continued, after learning the inmate being treated had shot himself the week before and was described as not being “the most stable person in the world to be around.”

Millin noted Weir also admitted he had violated jail policy while interrogating the inmate. Weir testified he told him, “Listen I need to know. I’m not going to write you up for this incident. But I need to know.”

Millin said the misconduct resulting from telling the prisoner he wouldn’t be punished for taking or possessing the contraband, as well as for allowing him to be alone in the medical room with the nurse, “strike at the county’s ability to maintain and operate a jail.”

The arbiter’s decision, Millin added, “ignored these critical and damning admissions by Weir.”

The county’s termination letter, which was dated June 23, 2005, indicated Weir was fired for falsifying and failing to file reports on the incident, telling subordinates not to file reports, telling an inmate he wouldn’t be punished, and misrepresenting facts about the incident to county officials investigating it.

At the time, Epstein, President Judge Francis J. Fornelli, commissioners Michele Brooks and Olivia M. Lazor, Sheriff Bill Romine and Controller Tom Amundsen agreed to fire Weir. Commissioner Brian Beader believed Weir’s actions warranted punishment, but said firing him was too severe.

According to court records: guard Wayne Steen brought the pipe tobacco into the jail. He left his jacket hanging in the medical room for a short time and when he returned found the tobacco had been stolen. Steen was suspended for five days without pay for his actions.

Guard Thomas Schaefer was also fired and guard Matthew Ray was suspended for 30 days without pay for their roles in the incident and its aftermath. Schaefer and Ray were probationary employees at the time and not members of Teamsters Local 250, which represents guards, nor were they entitled to the same rights.

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