OPINION: Chris Kelly Opinion: A cop and a thief headed to prison

May 7—The sentencing of Jeffrey Vaughn was by the numbers.

Over nine months in 2021 and 2022, the former Scranton police sergeant was paid for 77 extra-duty shifts at city low-income housing developments. For 58 of those shifts — 266 hours — he was either at home or out of town, federal prosecutors proved.

For the shifts he didn't show up, Vaughn was paid $34.42 an hour for a total of $9,155. He pocketed another $2,088 from roving DUI patrols he spent parked on his couch at $58 an hour. While Vaughn added to his $80,527 annual base salary doing anything but his job, some of the city's most vulnerable citizens went unprotected, disrespected and devalued.

Taking taxpayer money he didn't earn will cost Vaughn $11,234 in restitution, a $2,100 fine, six months in prison and his pension. The damage he did to public trust in his former profession is incalculable.

Despite the obvious and lasting collateral damage wrought by Vaughn's dishonesty, defense attorney Paul Walker expressed shock that his client was sentenced to prison. He didn't seem to know it, but Walker made a sterling argument for why Vaughn belongs behind bars.

"If he hadn't been a police officer, this would have been a non-confinement thing from the start," he told U.S. District Court Judge Robert D. Mariani in a statement urging leniency for Vaughn. Walker said his client had "a lot of respect and admiration for the job."

"It was a career for him, not just a job," he said, arguing that his client's "embarrassment" to himself and his fellow officers and the loss of his pension was punishment enough. Walker said Vaughn "lost the respect and admiration of his peers."

Umm, no. Vaughn didn't lose the respect and admiration of his peers. He threw it away. Vaughn was a cop. His status as a police officer provided the opportunity to commit the felony to which he pleaded guilty — theft concerning programs receiving federal funds.

Civilians don't take extra-duty shifts at housing projects or on roving DUI patrols. Police officers do, because they are granted the authority to protect and serve. That authority — along with pay and benefits — comes with a responsibility to do the work. When an individual cop chooses not to honor that responsibility, the authority of all cops is diminished.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey St. John pointed this out in a statement that set a welcome, tougher tone than a presentencing report that was fatally preoccupied with the public's tendency to project the behavior of bad cops onto all police officers.

St. John said the Feds insisted on a felony charge because Vaughn was a cop who "did harm to public safety" and contributed to the "eroding of public trust in the institution."

"That's bad!" St. John said. "Bad! There's no better way to say it."

I'll try. For all his alleged "respect and admiration for the job," Vaughn showed neither when he chose to rip off taxpayers and blow off the citizens he swore an oath to protect and serve. There are bad apples in every profession. I've known lots of lousy reporters, but very few bad cops.

Vaughn was hired in 2000 and fired this January. He was a good cop. Until he wasn't. The judge said it better than me or St. John.

"People of the City of Scranton expect, and I believe have a right to expect, city police officers will not steal public funds," Mariani said. "That's as basic as it gets."

Amen, Your Honor. In the preamble to his wholly appropriate sentencing of Vaughn, the judge rattled off more numbers that may shed light on why Vaughn was desperate for extra money.

"You have no history of abuse of alcohol, but you have a long and substantial history of gambling, and gambling large amounts of money," Mariani said.

The judge said that history dates back to 2010 and includes a year in which Vaughn won more than $400,000 and lost $300,000. He said Vaughn claimed to have registered his name on "self-exclusion lists" that keep problem gamblers out of casinos, but doesn't consider himself an addict.

Between March 2022 and March 2023, Vaughn visited Mt Airy Casino Resort 88 times, Mariani said. Vaughn visited area casinos 33 times over the 51 days since his guilty plea. Only Vaughn can say whether he has a problem, but this grateful, recovering alcoholic hopes he goes into court-ordered addiction treatment with an open mind.

"For the past year, I've thought about this day," Vaughn said before the judge delivered his sentence. "I made an error in judgment."

Actually, Vaughn made at least 58 errors in judgment — one for every shift he chose to cheat taxpayers, the citizens he swore an oath to protect and serve and his brothers and sisters in blue.

Jeffrey Vaughn was a cop and a thief. That's as basic as it gets.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, earns his pay. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly. Contact the writer: kellysworld @timesshamrock.com; @cjkink on Twitter; Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook.