IT'S A CASE of bureaucracy, paperwork and procedure trumping decency.

It's a case of the state punishing one of its own front-liners, with 19 years service, who was injured during an undercover drug bust nearly five years ago.

It's a case draining the resources of a family of four now enmeshed in litigation, living without health insurance and facing a $41,000 "bill" that the family is told it owes the state.

It's not pretty.

It started in January 2006, when State Trooper Scott Hawley, of Towanda, in Bradford County, 140 miles northwest of Philly, was rammed head-on in his undercover car by a fleeing drug dealer near Wilkes-Barre.

Hawley suffered severe lower- back injuries. He went on workers' comp and so-called heart and lung benefits, which provide police, firefighters and corrections officers full salary if injured on the job.

He returned to work that October, but in July 2008, while searching for marijuana plants in Loyalsock State Forest, he slipped on a log, reinjured his back and was forced off duty again.

He returned to work in September but then, in October 2008, reinjured his back simply by bending over to move a lawn chair at home.

After that, things got worse.

The state argued that this new injury was unrelated to his on-the-job injury and that he could no longer collect benefits.

He was, at the time, a fit 40-year-old undercover narcotics cop with no prior health issues, apart from the back problem.

In April 2009, he had surgery: Eight screws, two long rods and a bone stimulator were put in his back during a nine-hour spinal-fusion operation.

(One screw now is loose, pressing on nerves, requiring further surgery.)

Still, the State Police denied his salary and benefits, fought his efforts to retain workers' comp and even appealed a decision last June regranting that benefit.

"It's been a nightmare," says Scott's wife, Melissa, a nurse who runs a small business that staffs local hospitals and nursing homes.

Speaking publicly for the first time, she says that their children, daughter Casey, 13, and son Tyler, 8, were pulled out of the Christian school that they attended because the family could no longer pay tuition costs.

She says that they are unable to pay bills or health-care costs, and that the "physical and emotional toll of being abandoned by the department has affected every aspect of our lives."

The kicker, she says, came just before Thanksgiving. A "bill" showed up for $41,000 in overpaid benefits: "First they took all his sick leave and vacation time, kept thousands and thousands in back salary, and now they are going to take more back. How are they allowed to do this to people?"

Hawley gets workers' comp amounting to about half his usual salary and health coverage related only to his injury.

Full salary and health-coverage issues remain in litigation because the State Police says that Hawley failed to appeal its denial in a timely manner as called for in the contract between the department and its troopers.

The department is fighting Hawley's appeal of that decision.

"If the department were to agree to allow the appeal, it would set a precedent under which the deadline for such appeals would be meaningless," according to State Police spokesman Jack Lewis.

Paperwork, in other words, rather than common sense.

Bruce Edwards, head of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the union working on Hawley's behalf, says, "We're talking about a trooper hurt taking down drug dealers, someone who every day is putting his life on the line, and all this administration can see is a balance sheet."

Hawley's Harrisburg attorney, Tony Caputo, says that the state's case "hangs on a technicality," adding, "It's devastating for the family; it's a terrible shame."

Sadly, it's not a new story. Melissa Hawley contacted me because five years ago I wrote about a trooper's widow and children who had been denied death benefits because the State Police argued that a heart attack that killed the trooper while on duty was not job-related.

After the Daily News made that case public, benefits were approved. Same thing should happen now. No one deserves more bureaucratic slack than the frontline defenders of public safety.

State decisions affecting such real public servants and their families made on the basis of bookkeeping diminish government and society and amount to a public disgrace. Those who truly serve society deserve much better.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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