Ex-Scranton school employee cleared of charges in water contamination case sues attorney general's office

Sep. 28—The state Office of Attorney General charged a former Scranton School District maintenance supervisor with endangering children despite evidence he shut down water fountains shortly after he was advised lead levels exceeded federal guidelines, according to a federal lawsuit.

Joseph Slack alleges prosecutors had verifiable proof he did not commit a crime, but continued to pursue the high-profile case to advance their political careers. Charges against him were ultimately dropped, but not before he suffered serious health issues brought on by the intense public scrutiny.

Slack, of Scranton, was arrested Sept. 30, 2020, along with former Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., and former Chief Operating Officer Jeff Brazil based on a statewide grand jury investigation into asbestos issues and elevated levels of lead in the water at multiple schools.

The trio were charged with multiple counts of endangering the welfare of children and recklessly endangering another person for allegedly failing to act to address the issues. Just less than a year later, all charges against Slack and Brazil were dropped. Kirijan initially had charges reduced to three misdemeanors, but two of those counts were later withdrawn. She was admitted to the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program on one misdemeanor count.

The lawsuit, filed by Scranton attorney Vincent Cimini, names the Office of Attorney General, state police and several employees of both organizations as defendants. It does not name Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor in the November midterm elections.

In a statement, Jacklin Rhoads, communications director for the office, defended its handling of the case.

"Our task is to pursue justice and when new information came to light, we dismissed charges against Mr. Slack," she said. "We will defend any allegations of wrongdoing to the fullest extent."

The lawsuit faults the office for filing the charges in the first place. It cites emails that show Slack took action to remediate the problems shortly after Kirijan and Brazil learned about the elevated lead levels in January 2019 from Guzek Associates Inc., a company hired to test the water.

According to the suit:

Brazil emailed Slack on Jan. 15, 2019, to advise him of the issue and directed him to place the identified water fountains and sinks "off limits immediately." Over the next 11 days, Slack placed signs that said "do not drink or cook with" on the affected fountains and sinks, and/or shut off the water supply to them.

Shortly after placing the signs, Kirijan, whom Slack later learned had not yet notified the school board of the issues, angrily confronted him and forbade him from taking any further remediation steps unless she authorized them.

Slack provided Senior Deputy Attorney General Erik Olsen a statement on Feb. 20, 2020, detailing the actions he took. He also identified a witness who saw him make the signs and the confrontation he had with Kirijan. Despite that evidence, authorities pushed forth with charges.

During his highly publicized arrest, Slack was handcuffed and shackled and paraded before the media in an attempt to shame him, the suit says. The attorney general's office later issued a "scathing" press release alleging Slack, Brazil and Kirijan "hid the truth" and exposed "children to dangerous levels of lead."

On April 15, 2021, Slack provided a written statement, again summarizing the steps he took. The next day, Olsen left a voice message for Slack's criminal attorney, Tim Hinton, expressing ethical concerns about proceeding with the case. He indicated he would seek to dismiss the case, but he had to "get approval for those types of things." The charges were not dismissed until June 12, 2021.The suit says the case took an emotional toll on Slack, who was subjected to threats and scorn that left him "humiliated and ashamed." The stress caused him to suffer a cardiac emergency in March 2020.

The suit seeks damages on five counts, including false arrest, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In addition to the state police and Office of Attorney General, it names as defendants Olsen, two other attorney general employees, Robert McHugh and Brian Zarallo, and Michael Mulvey, a state trooper.

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137; @tmbeseckerTT on Twitter.