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Jailing the Johnstown Judge: Joe O'Kicki, the Mob and Corrupt Justice with author Bruce J. Siwy
In 1988, Judge Joe O’Kicki was regarded by many of his peers as one of the most brilliant legal minds in the country. Newly remarried and sworn in as the president judge of Cambria County, he had ambitions for a seat on a federal bench. But a state police vice unit was in the midst of a covert investigation into O’Kicki’s personal affairs. He was accused of soliciting bribes, protecting illegal gambling interests and running the county as if it was his personal fiefdom. When he was found guilty on corruption charges and set to serve jail time, he fled to central Europe, becoming an international fugitive. Using courtroom testimony, contemporary interviews and excerpts from O’Kicki’s unfinished memoir, author Bruce Siwy freshly examines the extraordinary case that captured headlines across the state and nation.
Bruce Siwy has a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Pittsburgh and is employed as the managing editor of the Daily American newspaper in Somerset. His résumé includes Associated Press Managing Editors and Pennsylvania NewsMedia Assocation Professional Keystone Media awards in the spot news, sports column writing, sports, business, investigative reporting, column, enterprise reporting and podcast categories. He lives in Western Pennsylvania with his wife and kids. You can follow him on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.
Bruce, welcome to Crime Capsule, we are so happy to have you.
Bruce Siwy (00:04):
Thanks for having me.
Benjamin Morris (00:05):
Now, based on your professional biography, Bruce, you are the kind of guy that my brother used to say, has ink in his veins. All the way from the very beginning, you were in the newsrooms, digging out the stories and sniffing out the facts. So, tell us about yourself, how did you get started?
Bruce Siwy (00:28):
Yeah, that's pretty funny because that's sort of where really coming into research, this book started. If you go back to whenever I was a kid, my grandparents lived by Joe O'Kicki's property, one of his properties who I ended up writing the book about.
Bruce Siwy (00:46):
And so, as a child, we'd explore the woods, we found the property, we wondered who owned it, and they said, Judge 'OKicki. My grandparents, my uncles, and we said, "Who's Joe O'Kicki?" And they said, "Well, look at the front page of the newspaper." And so, that's what I did.
Bruce Siwy (01:01):
And so, as a kid, I started following the case, and it's probably the reason why I got into journalism and then, led me to write this book eventually.
Benjamin Morris (01:09):
You have been carrying this for decades, is what you're saying.
Bruce Siwy (01:14):
It's what got me started in the journalism field as a kid just wanting to read about research and learn more and then tell the story.
Benjamin Morris (01:24):
Well, let me ask you, jumping ahead almost to the end right here at the beginning, what stage of the investigation and or trial was currently in the newspaper when your grandfather told you, "Hey, take a look at A1 one above the fold?"
Bruce Siwy (01:41):
Wow, I was probably only — I couldn't have been older than seven-years-old, so it would've been around the time that he was charged or convicted. It gets muddy at that point, but I just remember seeing front page above the fold of the local Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, almost on a daily basis.
Bruce Siwy (02:00):
There was a new story about whether he was battling his charges, and then when he fled the country, which of course, we'll get into so many different chapters to this saga, and I couldn't tell you exactly where it began. I just know that when we asked relatives, "Well, who's this Judge O'Kicki?" They just laughed and said, "Well, he's a crook," and that was what I knew.
Benjamin Morris (02:25):
It does make you wonder, if you could turn the clock back or get that window onto past years, I mean, what must it have been like in that newsroom, right in those months, in '88, '89 when it was all blowing up? Do you sort of get a sense of vicarious nostalgia or excitement for your colleagues back then?
Bruce Siwy (02:53):
Yeah, there's a few that I've talked to who were in and around the courthouse at that time, and without giving any names or identities away, because some of these individuals don't really want to go there. It was tense, it was extremely nerve-wracking because the politics that were going on, the criminal charges, you didn't know who was being wire tapped or was wearing a wire.
Bruce Siwy (03:15):
I mean, extreme kind of circumstances at the time, and people who did cover it and were in the courthouse for various reasons at that time, will tell you that it was a pretty intense period in Cambria County.
Benjamin Morris (03:30):
I can believe it. And you don't know what's going to come out day by day, do you? I mean, the revelations, they're stacked a mild deep, aren't they?
Bruce Siwy (03:38):
Yes, there were quite a few charges against this particular judge and a lot of other things going on under the radar, behind the scenes at that time. And so, yeah, I think that there was a vein of paranoia and I don't even know if you call it paranoia when you really are being wire tapped by the state police, but that's what was happening at the time.
Benjamin Morris (03:59):
Well, we'll get into it. Before we get that far though, let's take a second and just look at this part of the Commonwealth to begin with. Now, have you covered this bit your entire career, this particular sort of postage stamp, as they say, of your native soil in William Faulkner's terms?
Bruce Siwy (04:21):
For the most part, yes. I grew up in Johnstown area of Cambria County, and then after college, started in the newspaper business in Somerset County, which is an adjacent county, just south of there. So, for the first, 5, 6, 7 years of my career, I was in Somerset County, very close by. And then I got on with a weekly paper, assisted publication that covered the Johnstown community again.
Bruce Siwy (04:48):
And so, basically, since that time, I've been covering Cambria County until recently where I took a role covering Harrisburg in state politics.
Benjamin Morris (04:58):
And what would you say, just in a nutshell, are some of the major concerns, the major bits in this area? Of course, as you write in your book, one of the dominant forces in this part of Pennsylvania, was heavy industry and steel and the mills and so forth for years and years. But what else consumes the attention of the locals?
Bruce Siwy (05:20):
I think renewal and the next step — progress. I mean, when you look at communities similar to Johnstown, if you go for instance, about an hour and a half to our west is Pittsburgh, and that is a major city that's reinvented itself through education and healthcare, and they've sort of found their next chapter.
Bruce Siwy (05:40):
Pittsburgh's doing pretty well by many accounts, and Johnstown has felt like a small Pittsburgh to a lot of people here that hasn't found its next chapter yet. There's been disinvestment, there's been urban decay, and there's been population loss. And so, a lot of what Johnstown, Cambria County residents grapple with, and deal with is, how do I make this community a place where my children want to stay and rebuild and continue to linger?
Bruce Siwy (06:12):
And that's really been the big question. And I think something that local leaders and people across the area have struggled with because the population loss has been real. And when politicians, whether on the national or state level do their campaigning — in fact, our new governor here in Pennsylvania launched his campaign in Johnstown.
Bruce Siwy (06:32):
You know, just to, I think, prove a point about we're not letting these communities be forgotten, we're not letting these towns and cities be reclaimed by nature. We want to show that we have a vested interest in these former Rust Belt areas. And so, I think Johnstown has become sort of an emblem of that.
Benjamin Morris (06:49):
It's interesting, isn't it, because a key part of that narrative of renewal, as you describe, has to be public trust, the integrity of public trust, which your book explores in every dimension imaginable. And it's one of those things, it's like you can't really see the fabric until it's torn, can you?
Bruce Siwy (07:11):
I think that's a really good point. I think that when Judge Joe O'Kicki was charged in the late '80s, it sort of opened Pandora's box, and I think a lot of things that weren't talked about and were kept under the rug now started to come to light. And I think my book kind of gets into the particulars of that, and maybe even some things that were still under wraps.
Benjamin Morris (07:34):
So, you have told us about the deep origin of your interest in the case. It's not often that we have our authors, our guests mention, "I've been following this since I was a seven-year-old." So, that's pretty exciting for us, thank you for sharing that.
Benjamin Morris (07:55):
The book, it is a ripping, good yarn. I mean, it reads like a page turner because you just have no idea what is going to happen next, and you only know that it's going to get worse and worse and worse as you go deeper into the story.
Benjamin Morris (08:14):
But I do want to ask, I mean, it is composed of an exceptional amount of dedicated reporting and sort of intricate sleuthing as you had to piece together these sources, and many of which came from sealed files and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (08:28):
When and where did you first start really compiling the material and having it take shape into book form, even though you had sort of carried the case in mind for years and years?
Bruce Siwy (08:45):
Yeah, I mean, full disclosure on that, as a child, I followed it and read it in the paper, and then there was a gap of many years in between where, at that point after, he had passed, there wasn't a whole lot of talk or there wasn't a whole lot that I was doing personally with it.
Bruce Siwy (09:01):
And so, it really picked up again, I believe in 2000, and I want to say it was around 2018. I had gotten to a point where I had more freedom in my work to look at longer form projects. And this case, I mentioned to a co-worker and he had never heard of it, and he had grown up in Cambria County and was only maybe two or three years younger than I am.
Bruce Siwy (09:24):
And so, it was fascinating to me that it was in the back of my memory, and yet he had never heard of it. And so, he and I started talking, and then it went from there really. It became something that I started pulling out the archives and researching. And at a certain point at the Heritage Association, I mentioned something to the Executive Director about this particular case and whether they had a lot of materials on it.
Bruce Siwy (09:49):
And what he had said to me was that the judge's widow was in there all the time researching things and looking at things of her own, and he kind of laughed and said, "She is still convinced that he had the raw deal and was set up," and I said, "Would she talk to me?" And he said, "I can give you her email and you can try."
Bruce Siwy (10:08):
And that dialogue is really where this began in earnest, because she was able to share so many things in terms of letters that he had written notes on, yellowing notepads, just all this crazy source material that she was willing to share to try to get his side of the story out there, and that's really where it grew legs.
Benjamin Morris (10:28):
And you reproduced some of that material in the book, especially the images of the handwritten notes and legal pads and so forth. It's fascinating to see it firsthand.
Bruce Siwy (10:40):
She kept virtually everything. In fact, she said when they fled the country, which again, we're putting the end of the story first, but they had, I think, an entire storage shed full of records and documents and things because he was still hoping to sue people and counter sue, and he had just kept everything, he was a pack rat with this stuff.
Bruce Siwy (10:59):
And so, he had a lot of this material, and his widow has kept much of that and was willing to share a lot of that with me in the interest of getting their side of things out there in the public domain.
Benjamin Morris (11:10):
Researcher's dream come true, just give us all the primary sources and leave us alone for six years, right?
Bruce Siwy (11:18):
Benjamin Morris (11:18):
So, it's interesting because Judge Joe O'Kicki, his early years, they were almost this kind of cliched American rags to riches — not riches, but sort of the self-made hard work American story, sort of childhood defined by poverty.
Benjamin Morris (11:44):
He worked really hard in school, put his academics first and excelled and ended up getting these degrees and he was at one point as a teenager, the sole breadwinner for the household. And all these elements that you get in Americana, but in sort of legends in lore, right? And in I don't know, Hardy boys kind of mysteries.
Benjamin Morris (12:08):
But in this particular case, it was true, it was actually all true. What was it like discovering that aspect of his life and piecing that together?
Bruce Siwy (12:18):
Yeah, that was really interesting to kind of piece together, as you said, more of a traditional immigrant story. His parents were like many who came to this portion of Pennsylvania looking for opportunities and finding it in the steel mill. It was very difficult, it sounds like a very difficult upbringing in the sense of not maybe having a ton of connections, not having a ton of resources.
Bruce Siwy (12:46):
And as you mentioned, he was at one point, apparently the sole bread winner when his father was ill and his mother was ill. And so, he had to overcome quite a bit to get to where he was. Certainly, didn't come from high upper class, certainly didn't come from an educated background, but was somebody who apparently had a very keen sense of things, was an avid reader, was somebody who was able to pick up and learn quickly.
Bruce Siwy (13:13):
And so, he sort of had a chip on his shoulder. I think that was something that was very evident, not just from the way in which he talked about himself, but the way in which others who knew him talked about him.
Bruce Siwy (13:24):
They talked about him being almost combative even without any pretext, just sort of combative. He certainly felt as though because of his background and his parents being immigrants, he was outside of the existing power structure and felt that he needed to prove himself.
Benjamin Morris (13:46):
He had a foray into politics in the fifties and sixties, didn't really take off. He made a couple of bids and a couple of runs and so forth after getting his legal training and so forth. But that was more of a precursor to the position that he would end up in, in 1971.
Benjamin Morris (14:08):
So, tell us just about that moment when he actually — what is the verb exactly? He takes up the bench, does he sit down on the bench? What does he carry his bench? Does he join the bench?
Bruce Siwy (14:22):
I guess you would say he joined the bench, yes. He ran for office prior to running for judge. He had ran for Congress actually, and he ran as a Democrat, he lost to a Republican for that seat. And as you mentioned, I think it was more of maybe a stepping stone.
Bruce Siwy (14:41):
You know how it goes — if you run for an office even that you maybe can't win, you're getting your name on the ballot, you get name recognition. And then he was able to win a position on the Cambria County Court of Common Pleas around 1970. And so, that was sort of where his political career began after he had gone to law school.
Benjamin Morris (15:41):
So, before the trouble begins (and we'll get to the trouble very quickly here) what kinds of cases were commonly brought to this particular court, and what kinds of cases based on your research was Judge O'Kicki hearing?
Bruce Siwy (16:08):
There were a variety of things. Obviously, he was in charge of the Orphans Court, so he dealt with all those sorts of issues. He was also someone who at various times, would have to rule on problems that resulted from the 1977 Johnstown flood, which resulted in the loss of dozens of lives and property.
Bruce Siwy (16:30):
There's a few portions of the book that get into this as well. There was a pretty well-known trial in the early 1980s in which a handful of police officers had entered a bar that was frequented by members of the Outlaws biker gang.
Bruce Siwy (16:48):
And the long and short of it is that a brawl turned into a shootout and no one was killed, but O'Kicki was the judge tasked with those charges against the outlaw biker gang members who were involved in this. And there was sort of some back and forth in there about whether or not the officers were there undercover, as they had said, or whether they were there, and just causing problems having a night out. And that was the start of this whole brawl.
Bruce Siwy (17:18):
But that was probably one of the more well-known cases that he presided over, and in fact, took a lot of precautions about it. He told a lot of people at various times that he did fear for his life, that these were some dangerous individuals and that he was very nervous about that case and any kind of fallout or repercussion that would've came from presiding over a trial like that.
Benjamin Morris (17:41):
You know, it's interesting because when the court itself is called Common Pleas, it makes you think just kind of on first blush that it's kind of like a small claims court, just like a low-level stuff, but it actually sounds like he was handling some fairly complex cases and suits here.
Bruce Siwy (18:01):
It's a county level court in Pennsylvania, and so it was right above the magistrate level when things would progress to that area. And so, he was a judge there for about 18 years, and then was sworn as President Judge in 1988, which is when, as you mentioned, his legal troubles came to light.
Benjamin Morris (18:23):
So, you write that rumors about mishandling of cases or favors being granted or the misuse of certain funds, did begin to swirl around that office fairly early on. So, he came onto the bench in 1971, and it just wasn't long. We don't have an exact timeframe, but you write that it just wasn't long before the gossip train got going.
Benjamin Morris (19:04):
Based on your research, when did you really begin to see either a demonstrable uptick in — what is the right word here? You know mishandling of nearly everything that's going on under his care or just like a little rent in the garment, just like a little rent in the fabric where you like, "Hmm, that's interesting. Hmm, that doesn't look right." What kind of timestamp would you put on this in his career?
Bruce Siwy (19:33):
Well, that's a really good question. There were so many charges that ended up being passed down through this presentment.
Bruce Siwy (19:41):
It would take some time for me to go back and dissect into which ones started when, because I know that the prosecutors, when they did this, they went back several years for some of these, and so it sounded like a lot of these accusations dated back to the late 1970s, so a good decade before he was actually formally charged with anything.
Benjamin Morris (20:06):
So, we'll get to the formal charges in a minute, but just offhand, what kinds of things was he being accused of?
Bruce Siwy (20:14):
So, one of the things that was remarkable to me was at one point, a tip staff told state police that he had been tasked with going to the owners of a strip mining company and asking them for a commitment of, I believe, 10% of their profits in exchange for a favorable zoning ruling to enable them to strip mine.
Bruce Siwy (20:37):
So, that would be, I think, one of the examples that I would use when people ask me, "Well, what was he accused of?" Now, I don't believe he was ultimately convicted of that particular charge, but that's the kind of thing that came up in the presentment, was that he would ask for certain financial considerations in exchange for rulings. The one that he was convicted of in that vein was an attorney at one point, looking for a settlement.
Bruce Siwy (21:06):
And after O'Kicki had ruled in his favor for this settlement, made a comment to him, something along the lines of, "Don't you think I should be given a commission on this?" And O'Kicki's attorneys would argue, "Well, he was joking, he was friends with this person, it was a joke." This person told the courts no, that O'Kicki was famous for shaking people down for whatever he could get.
Bruce Siwy (21:27):
And it was usually in the vein of an offhand comment, but people didn't take it as a joke, maybe the way that he presented it. So, a lot of that going on at the time and that was part of what landed him in some of the hot water he ended up in.
Benjamin Morris (21:45):
It's so polite, isn't it, the term, a little commitment, a little consideration. I'm reminded of the term in modern standard Arabic, which is bakhshish. It is a bribe, but really it's a consideration, it's for your trouble, like here's just a little something for your trouble. And how polite is that?
Benjamin Morris (22:09):
It's interesting because these considerations that you document in the book, many of them ( and this is kind of classic cloak and dagger kind of stuff) seemed to be handed around in thick wads of cash in unmarked envelopes that themselves don't necessarily always make it to their destinations.
Benjamin Morris (22:28):
And there seems to be a few instances where he's maybe waiting on his consideration and it doesn't arrive, and then he gets mad because it's possibly been intercepted or the bagman never made his way back to the assigned location. It is sort of this interesting, like digging into the shadows aspect and you see the trail, you see the actual paper trail and where it stops.
Bruce Siwy (22:56):
Yes, yes, absolutely. In fact, I believe one of the other charges he was convicted of was accepting like $500 from a tip staff employee that the employee had given him with the understanding that O'Kicki was going to give it to the county commissioners who were in exchange, going to give him a better job or promotion within the county.
Bruce Siwy (23:15):
And so, as you mentioned, the unmarked envelopes full of bills being passed around for certain favors, that was a portion of what was apparently going on at the time.
Benjamin Morris (23:26):
Now, there's a side kind of element to this, which we have to consider, and it runs like another thread through your book, which is that sense of allegiance. And you get the sense of O'Kicki is running an operation and he has people on his staff within this courthouse who, some know about it, some don't, but he's always managing peoples' loyalties.
Benjamin Morris (23:51):
And those who are not loyal to him, they're not found in the bottom of the Susquehanna River, wearing concrete shoes, but they don't flourish in his employ, do they?
Bruce Siwy (24:09):
No, they don't. And in fact, that was as you mentioned, it being a theme or undercurrent in the book, I think that that's, because really it was a theme or undercurrent to the political culture in perhaps not just Cambria County, but to some extent, the Commonwealth.
Bruce Siwy (24:24):
If you look at John Tor Caddo — John Tor Caddo was an operative within the Democratic Party who ended up being convicted at a certain point of essentially arranging for jobs based on political financial contributions. That was sort of his role in the party, was to make sure that the contributions were made in an exchange, you could get consideration for promotions within PennDOT or one of these other state agencies.
Bruce Siwy (24:53):
And so, that really was, I think, to a certain degree, part of the ingrained culture of the area and something that O'Kicki would have been to or aware of and perhaps part of at one point.
Benjamin Morris (25:06):
You know, he writes in his own hand, you have transcriptions of various pieces of memoir and stationary and so forth. I mean, even O'Kicki is apt to say on regular intervals that no one is above the law. I mean, he just sort of says that routinely, almost.
Benjamin Morris (25:23):
And yet here, he is putting himself in all sorts of privileged positions and trying to insulate himself from oversight and from investigation and so forth. How do you read that? I mean, is he sort of using that phrase or that concept as a shield to deflect incoming arrows? Or is it just pure delusion at this point?
Bruce Siwy (25:49):
I think to a certain extent, part of what may have been going through his mind was the idea here that he'd been driving on this road, on this highway, 65 mile per hour speed limit, going 90 to a hundred with maybe a handful of other people, and routinely, passing the marked vehicles and never getting a ticket.
Bruce Siwy (26:07):
And all of a sudden, he finds himself in a position where he's been pulled over and is getting the ticket. And to some extent, he argued his innocence. But more than that, to a certain degree, if you even look at some of the arguments that were made in court by his attorneys, it was in some cases, less about this guy is innocent, and almost to a certain degree, about this is what's happening here.
Bruce Siwy (26:30):
These is how business is done here, here are other people who were involved in things. And so, I think there was a weird sense of outrage in the sense that he felt he was singled out in all of this. And there were other things going on at the time. There were other people doing other things at the time that he felt were getting away with it.
Bruce Siwy (26:50):
So, I think when he says, as you mentioned, no one is above the law, it was maybe about him trying to deflect from what he had done or not done at that time. Trying to say that, "Hey, there are others doing this, and I'm the one who's being singled out."
Bruce Siwy (27:07):
I think at one point he says that "Someone has pushed the state police button and targeted me." And so, he was the victim of this conspiracy. That he was part of this machine for a long time, and he was the only one getting in trouble only because he had made the wrong enemies.
Benjamin Morris (27:23):
That is a truly special phrase. And I'm going to be carrying that one with me for a while. That's terrible. Oh, wow — “Pushed the state police button.”
Benjamin Morris (27:37):
Well, thankfully, one of the features of our system, judicial system here in this country is that there are layers and levels, and there are courts which are higher than the one the corrupt judge may happen to sit on.
Benjamin Morris (27:57):
And you detail in your book that there comes a point as these allegations are flying around, and more and more people are kind of whistleblowing, and there's a sense of people getting fed up with this over the course of the middle 1980s …
Benjamin Morris (28:11):
The empire can't last, and he's made enough enemies and has alienated enough former employees and so forth. People are starting to seek recourse, and at some point, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court gets involved. So, what brings things to that moment?
Bruce Siwy (28:37):
Well, the irony with the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court in this case is that ... and maybe the idea here was to provide yet another shield for himself, but O'Kicki is the one who asked the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court to come in and do an evaluation of the county court system, and that gives O'Kicki sort of ... what they did was when he was sworn in as president Judge, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court did an evaluation of the county court system outlining the backlog that existed there in terms of there were civil cases related to the Johnstown flood where victims' families were seeking recourse.
Bruce Siwy (29:16):
There were also some asbestos-related cases that were backlogged there. O'Kicki asked the state Supreme Court to come in and say, "Do this evaluation." And they actually hand him the report on the day he's sworn in as President Judge, and he's sitting there, and mind you, in context of everything happening at that time, O'Kicki knows he's under state police investigation, but he has this report, and he's sort of pounding the table up there in front of the audience saying he's been tasked with cleaning up the court system, and that's exactly what he's going to do.
Bruce Siwy (29:49):
And so, you don't know how disingenuous or not disingenuous he was about all of that. But that was a very, to me, having seen the VHS tape of that swearing in ceremony, a really, really tense moment in the county history, because here you have the sitting President Judge under state police investigation holding a report from the State Supreme Court and using this as an impetus to say, "I'm the guy who can fix this. I'm the guy who can clean this up." And it didn't work out for him, but the tension in that moment, I think is remarkable.
Benjamin Morris (30:24):
Sharp-eared listeners will of course recall that same language appearing in a certain inaugural speech of about six or seven years ago. And it's interesting that regardless of a person's individual political persuasion (we have listeners from, of course, all across the spectrum) — when one person claims to be the sole authority or to have all the instruments and all the power, I think there's something in the American mind which naturally recoils against that and says that's just not how we have designed things to be. There have to be layers and oversights and checks and balances and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (31:08):
So, I can only imagine, as you're watching this particular VHS, it sounds to me like what he's doing, is he's trying to make enough noise over here with his left hand and distract the audience with all of the commotion and all of the spectacle over here that nobody's going to see what his right hand is actually doing.
Bruce Siwy (31:29):
Yeah, I think that's a really good point. And I think also too, that because of that, the memory that a lot of people have still about him, in addition to, of course, the charges themselves, was that ceremony. People felt it was very over the top.
Bruce Siwy (31:46):
I mean, he had basically almost ordered the entire Bar Association to be there. He had the band from his high school on the balcony playing God Bless America or something like that. And when you ask people about Judge O'Kicki, a lot of people will still say that, "Yeah, what I remember about him was his coronation ceremony."
Bruce Siwy (32:10):
Because that's the way they felt in the presence of it, was that it was to pay homage to him and how great he was. And so, that came out from various people over the years. And I don't know, it kind of speaks to the point you just made, I think.
Benjamin Morris (32:25):
That's an amazing turn of phrase (coronation). So, of course, as with any coronation and any kingship, no one sits on the throne forever, and someone was coming for the king.
Benjamin Morris (32:39):
And in 1988, 1989, a grand jury is in fact, convened to examine the many different allegations of corruption, mismanagement and favoritism and so forth that are characterizing his tenure.
Benjamin Morris (33:01):
Now, there's a section in your book, which I would just love for you to read for us, because there's just nothing quite like hearing an act, the words of an actual indictment in order to kind of put you in the moment.
Benjamin Morris (33:13):
And I was wondering if you would be so kind as to — there's this passage that begins at the bottom of page 42 where you actually quote the grand jury report that was issued in early ‘89 with just about every potential charge that he could be facing.
Benjamin Morris (33:37):
And rather than try to summarize it, you and me, I just thought, let's let the grand jury have the last word here, or let's them have their day. So, would you just start with the allegations against paragraph there?
Bruce Siwy (33:53):
Yeah, and I'm glad that I'm able to read this because I certainly wouldn't be able to memorize it. Even though I did research the book, there's too much here. So, here's what we have here.
Bruce Siwy (34:03):
"Allegations against the Cambria County President Judge were sweeping and sensational. The grand jury report called, at that time, a presentment was issued in March of 1989.”
Bruce Siwy (34:12):
“It recommended charging O'Kicki with official oppression, criminal conspiracy to commit bribery, demanding property to secure employment, violations of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, bribery, criminal coercion, theft of services, obstructing the administration of law, misapplication of property of the government institution, theft by extortion, perjury, violations of the Pennsylvania election code, violations of the Pennsylvania Anti-bid Rigging Act, violations of the Pennsylvania Insurance Act, false applications for certificate of title or registration, execution of documents by deception, violations of the Pennsylvania Securities Act, felony criminal mischief, and the illegal extension of a water line.”
Benjamin Morris (35:00):
You know, that last one, it is the icing on the cake. I mean, criminal mischief and bribery and extortion and coercion — oh, and he ran his water line a little further than he was supposed to. You can't make it up.
Bruce Siwy (35:16):
Didn't want that permit.
Benjamin Morris (35:18):
Didn't want that permit. That was an extra 500, and he was going to have to come up with it from somewhere. So, he just thought, "Hey, we're going to go ahead and do it."
Benjamin Morris (35:26):
No, Bruce, I have to ask you just writer to writer here, like when you're working on a paragraph like that, that smelled suspiciously to me like one of those paragraphs where you write one version of it and then you're like, "Yeah, I got most of it in there." And then you go back to it and you're like, "No, I got to add this other thing." And then you go back to it again and you're like, "And there's this one other detail in there."
Benjamin Morris (35:51):
And then you reach like the fifth or sixth draft and you're like, "I've got to get the water line, the water line has to go in." And it's sort of like there's so much that you keep revising it over and over, partly because the story itself is just too crazy to be true.
Bruce Siwy (36:06):
Yeah, that felt like it went on forever because it did. And again, with the 76 total charges, total accounts were in that presentment. And one of the anecdotes that was related to me by, in fact, I believe it was the son of the person who defeated O'Kicki when he ran for Congress, he contacted me after this book had come out, and one of the things he wanted to tell me was that he had seen the judge shortly after the grand jury report had come out.
Bruce Siwy (36:37):
And he passes him on the street, and I'm trying to think now of the song, but there's apparently a song that is something like 76 horns or 76 trumpets or trombones or something like that. But he said he hears O'Kicki whistling this tune as he walks by him on the street, and he just can't help but laugh about that memory of him knowing that he's passing a political opponent on the street and sort of arrogantly humming 76 trombones because he was charged with 76 counts.
Bruce Siwy (37:10):
And so, I didn't know about this tune, it was on the Music Man or something like that, but I had to look it up after he mentioned it to me and listened to it. And I tried to envision it, and I had a good laugh to myself then too, picturing Judge O'Kicki humming this tune going down the sidewalk after he'd been charged.
Benjamin Morris (37:25):
All politics is local every time. That is fantastic. Now, in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Joseph O'Kicki, which is just you read a title like that for a court case, and when you understand what the stakes are, you just sort of think this is not supposed to happen. I mean, things like this are the kind of the pinnacle of self-defeating irony.
Benjamin Morris (37:52):
But charges are filed in spring of '89, and forgive me for being so cavalier here, but I mean, the shenanigans just don't stop. I mean, you would think that once the mechanism had kicked into gear and that okay, the state DA is on the case and they're presenting their evidence, and like finally, there's going to be a little bit of sanity and order restored to this just absolute crazy town of court case — like, nope, nope, nope, we don't get any of that, it only gets wilder.
Bruce Siwy (38:37):
It absolutely does. He and his defense sort of wrap their strategy around the idea that O'Kicki was targeted here because he had made enemies with a powerful businessman in the area, and that essentially, this was the person that (to use his phrase) pushed the state police button.
Bruce Siwy (38:58):
And so, that's really where the defense goes with this, making connections and tying many of the witnesses who testified against O'Kicki to various connections that they may or may not have had with this businessman.
Bruce Siwy (39:10):
And so, it sort of took on a life of its own in this whole trial. And I think that was very fascinating to read about and hear from people about, was this dynamic that in some cases, O'Kicki wasn't necessarily arguing his innocence as much as he was saying, "Well, this guy's worse than I am, essentially."
Benjamin Morris (40:31):
You know, it's interesting because one very effective push was to have a certain number of just the charges themselves dropped from the get-go, so that they were never actually brought in formally. That he'd gone from these sort of 76 charges recommended by the grand jury down to there were only about two dozen or so that he was actually really tried on by the end of it.
Benjamin Morris (40:58):
But there was one moment — and that's common enough. I mean, there's always these sort of negotiations between prosecution and defense to see what's going to hold water, what's going to stick to the wall, et cetera.
Benjamin Morris (41:08):
But there was one moment which I did have to ask about, and it sort of spoke to the complicated relationship of one judge to another when one judge is on trial. And there's this kind of interesting sense of like, what happens when one of our own goes bad or is accused of going bad and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (41:33):
And one of the presiding judges over his case ended up recusing himself under some pretty shady circumstances. So, help us understand what happened with Judge Levy.
Bruce Siwy (41:50):
So, this was another thing that I think the defense really, really aimed to use in their favor with the jury. Maybe not overtly with the first trial, but certainly when he went to appeal.
Bruce Siwy (42:02):
The initial presiding judge in this case, Judge Levy, not only had he dismissed several of the charges, but I apparently at one point, he had made some comment while being escorted to the courthouse to state police in the area — something to the effect of, "Well, all they need is one charge really to get rid of him or get him out of office," or something like that.
Bruce Siwy (42:25):
That comment that he had made to the state police was then reported back to the prosecutor's office. And the prosecutor's office in turn, suggested that the Judge Levy recuse himself.
Bruce Siwy (42:38):
Now, in the first the first draft of this request, they phrase it in a way that says, "Well, you have too busy of a schedule back in your home county, and you're not going to have time to devote to this properly." And when he rebuffed that, they came back and said that they had found evidence that he had used his judicial letterhead on personal correspondences with individuals.
Bruce Siwy (43:02):
And essentially, it was almost a sort of (I don't know how to say this) innocent threat toward the judge, essentially — we have evidence that you have done something possibly wrong yourself now, and so if you don't recuse yourself, we might have to take this into consideration.
Bruce Siwy (43:22):
And so, he did ultimately recuse himself a second judge, Judge Grifo then presided over the second half of this proceeding. And so, that was something that O'Kicki and his lawyers made a big deal about again, in the ramp up to try to get a second trial, was that the prosecutor's office had engaged in misconduct essentially, in trying to get the judge they wanted here.
Bruce Siwy (43:48):
And so, that was something that again, that they made a big deal about. As you mentioned, however, in fairness, these things happen all the time just because you have certain charges dismissed or consolidated. It's not necessarily evidence that they were all going away, but that was a big deal that O'Kicki and his team made in all of this.
Benjamin Morris (44:08):
You know, when I read it in your book, Bruce, I have to confess it absolutely came across as a veiled threat. I mean, there was no other way to read it just based on kind of their tone and kind of like the timing of it, and the game they were trying to play, the strategy that was under development. At that point in the proceedings, it was just sort of like this is exactly what they want and they're not afraid to show their piece, so to speak.
Bruce Siwy (44:42):
Yeah. I try to tiptoe around it, I try to be careful with some of these things, but I think that's a fair statement on your end. And that was, again, that was something that the defense made a be big deal about. In fact, do you know the show Inside Edition? Are you familiar with that one?
Benjamin Morris (44:56):
Bruce Siwy (45:00):
So, that was actually the focus of an entire segment of Inside Edition that O'Kicki and his team had basically contacted them and had them come to Johnstown. And they focused almost extensively on that aspect of the trial. They did an entire ... I think, it was Bill O'Reilly was the guy back in the studio saying, "Hey, we're going to go live to Johnstown PA."
Bruce Siwy (45:19):
And that's where O'Kicki and his attorneys made a big deal about that particular aspect of the trial after he was convicted.
Benjamin Morris (45:29):
Of course, the irony here is that O'Kicki had done the exact same thing himself — used official stationary for all sorts of personal requests, sometimes involving money. Did no one think that the pot was calling the kettle black?
Bruce Siwy (45:46):
Yeah. No, it's so much to get into with this. And that was sort of the challenge of this, as you mentioned, when you're talking about so many different aspects to it, not just the charges against him. There was just a lot going on at the time, and you had to be careful which rabbit holes you went down or how much time you focused on any one thing.
Bruce Siwy (46:08):
Because in honesty, certain chapters probably could have been branched out into their own book themselves. But you have to focus at one point and move on. But you're right about that.
Benjamin Morris (46:18):
Well, we are going to leave our listeners on a cliffhanger here. I want to ask you how the end of the trial played out, and there's a passage that I'd love for you to read for us as well.
Benjamin Morris (46:34):
But it is fascinating that at this moment of such heightened drama and attention paid to the integrity of the judicial system, even more irony, sort of even more shenanigans are lying in wait. We've just finished looking at the Alex Murdoch trial with several guests, and it came up in the course of our conversation that, of course, courtrooms are theaters.
Benjamin Morris (46:57):
But in this particular case, Bruce, I think a better description might be a circus. And I think you were covering kind of a circus in retrospect. And out comes the lion tamer and here come the trapeze artists and look at these legal acrobatics that are taking place in every corner of the arena.
Benjamin Morris (47:16):
I couldn't kind of get it out of my head that this was just getting wilder and wilder by the minute. But the end of the trial, of course, is the wildest of all, and what happens immediately after. So, take us there.
Bruce Siwy (47:31):
So, when O'Kicki's convicted, of course, he's looking at appealing. And so, not only is he planning that, he's also planning a backup strategy, and that backup strategy, in fact, involves fleeing the country entirely. And so, his wife, his second wife, had been studying on a Fulbright scholarship in Slovenia, which was sort of a fledgling nation at the time with ironically, no extradition treaty with the United States.
Bruce Siwy (47:56):
And O'Kicki's parents had lived in that area. And so, he had essentially found a way to obtain a passport, a Slovenian passport as a dual citizen amid all this. So, state police had taken his American passport and thought he was grounded here.
Bruce Siwy (48:12):
Well, when he finds out that the state is not going to hear his appeal, he disappears. And that's where he pops up, in Slovenia, ironically, where no extradition treaty has been reached with the United States. And so, after all of that, he doesn't end up serving a day of his sentence.
Benjamin Morris (48:31):
Would you read that passage for us on page 83? That starts off with he's convicted of six counts of all of the charges that are brought against him. And would you just read that passage that starts off with the memorable phrase — I'm going to try not to get tongue twisted here, because it is kind of a Peter Piper pickle peppers kind of kind of sentence, but where you say, "And so O'Kicki was cooked ..."
Bruce Siwy (49:01):
"And so O'Kicki was cooked. The man sworn in as the county's President Judge, less than two years prior, was now a convict. He would be stripped of his $80,000 salary and pension; his sentence would include a maximum of 26 years. Ironically, O'Kicki would never serve even a day in jail. Instead, Attorney General Ernest Preate, whose office prosecuted the judge would himself end up in federal prison."
Benjamin Morris (49:26):
So, we are not going to spoil for our listeners why that happens, right? For that, you got to read the book. There's plenty more where that came from as far as the circus goes. But when he gets to Slovenia, it's kind of remarkable.
Benjamin Morris (49:45):
He really does do this quasi espionage kind of thing where it's like rotating addresses, and he goes in disguise, and he does everything he can to avoid capture. Again, our listeners are going to have to read the book to find out exactly what happens to him over there.
Benjamin Morris (50:03):
But I have just one or two questions for you regarding the overall sweep of the case, Bruce. Someone far wiser than I am once told me that everybody has a price. And the question is finding out exactly what that price is.
Benjamin Morris (50:32):
So, what I'd like to ask you is what do you think was O'Kicki's price, or did he enjoy his position of being able to find out everybody else's price? What was the core of his corruption, would you say?
Bruce Siwy (50:58):
That's deep. That is a deep question, Ben. I would say in O'Kicki's case, going back to, as we mentioned briefly, his upbringing and maybe his childhood, and you talk about the chip he had on his shoulder. To a certain extent, I think, and it felt to me like throughout here that he was looking to climb, he was looking to get as high on the ladder as he could go.
Bruce Siwy (51:26):
And I think that the congressional run speaks to that. His grand ambitions and calling in the State Supreme Court, the talk about joining the federal bench. And so, I think he was driven to get where he wanted to be and the costs along the way, maybe were secondary to a certain degree.
Bruce Siwy (51:47):
And I think as part of telling this story, which was equally fascinating to me, was just all of the other components and things that were happening at the time in addition to his trial — we just briefly mentioned the attorney general himself facing some trouble as well.
Bruce Siwy (52:07):
And so, that was just as compelling to me to research as O'Kicki's case itself was, everything going on in Cambria County, and to some extent, throughout Pennsylvania also at the time. When you peel back and zoom out a little bit and look at the big picture, it's sort of mind-blowing.
Benjamin Morris (52:31):
I mean, the youthful ambition as you write very early on, seems to be an incredible driving force. But I wonder what happens when you actually get to that position of power and all it takes is one little influence, one little misstep, and it makes the next one easier and the next one easier after that.
Benjamin Morris (52:52):
And then soon, you're kind of taking a little kickback here, a little consideration there. And part of it is simply to maintain what you have. But then there's another part of it where you're always trying to extend your reach and the whole thing, it can't last of course.
Benjamin Morris (53:10):
But with such a long career of abusing the public trust, just wondering over and over as I was reading your book, what was his price? What was his price? And I never really quite got an answer there. It's mysterious.
Bruce Siwy (53:27):
And again, I think that it's just to a certain extent, I feel like there was a belief that once you get to a certain position, there's an entitlement almost. And I think that it was something maybe he sensed around him, maybe preceding him before him.
Bruce Siwy (53:49):
And one of the things that was recently written by another author, a man named Russell Shorto, did a book called Small Time, and it focused on his own family's involvement with illicit mob activity, dating back to the mid-century.
Bruce Siwy (54:04):
And one of the things that he gets into in that book is a very straightforward payoff system that had been arranged in Cambria County, where when these mob outfits were operating and the illegal gambling was going on, they had a system set up where the mob was feeding funds to whatever political party was in power.
Bruce Siwy (54:23):
And as part of that system and arrangement, when they would do a bust, they almost set it up in coercion with them where, okay, this is the guy that's going to take the fall here, they're going to get a slap on the wrist fine, and we're going to continue doing business.
Bruce Siwy (54:37):
And so, I only bring that up because I do feel like if you look at the history, there was a lot of that going on for a long time. A lot of these payoffs, a lot of these arrangements made for years where people weren't getting into hot water. And so, I think that to a certain extent, he felt because of knowing some of this, that he too would be immune to any consequences.
Benjamin Morris (55:06):
Well, for our listeners who want to dive deep into the heart and the mind of a man whose abusive trust lives on in infamy, and has for decades and decades and decades — I mean, this account cannot arrive on their desks soon enough. It really is incredibly well-researched.
Benjamin Morris (55:29):
And as you go through, just each new page presents more of the circus, but also more of the sadness too, how someone could fall so far from grace. And we're very grateful to you for shining a light on a part of the story that even though it's broken, it shows us how much more work there is to do.
Benjamin Morris (55:51):
And it reminds us of how grateful we can be when the system does work as intended. And your chapter about the fact that there was a post-O'Kicki era in justice in Cambria County was such a tonic, such a needed tonic after your account of the misdeeds. So, I was very grateful that you included that as part of your story.
Bruce Siwy (56:13):
Yeah, it's not all darkness here. And yeah, absolutely. I think that it's important to note that we have not had a sitting judge here in the county convicted since. And so, we'll hope that that streak continues.
Benjamin Morris (56:29):
Well, we will raise our glass to that. Tell us just before we go, where can listeners find a copy of your book, and how can they order it or pre-order it? What's the best place for them to find you and Jailing the Johnstown Judge?
Bruce Siwy (56:44):
Arcadia Publishing is one place to look for it. And also, of course, on online retailers such as Amazon and Books-A-Million, et cetera. But I did want to first mention Arcadia of course, parent company with History Press and thank them as the ones who had seen the potential in a story like this and worked with me on publishing it.
Benjamin Morris (57:15):
Well, Bruce, it has been a total pleasure to have you. Thank you again. And all the best for the release of the book.