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For tiny Delco town, yet another sign of turmoil

Though a tiny Delaware County community of just 3,200 people, Upland Borough saw its share of scandal in 2016.

The borough hall of Upland, Pennsylvania on Main Street near 8th.
The borough hall of Upland, Pennsylvania on Main Street near 8th.Read moreWikipedia / cc

Though a tiny Delaware County community of just 3,200 people, Upland Borough saw its share of scandal in 2016.

A longtime councilman was arrested and charged with taking kickbacks and maintaining a secret surveillance system at borough hall.

The mayor, who detectives say tipped them off about the surveillance system, was charged with driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident.

A former police chief was placed on leave after the district attorney shut down a criminal case the chief had filed against a borough councilwoman.

Now, the fire chief is suing that former police chief and the councilman, asserting they threatened false charges against him in a bid to make him resign after he raised questions about a borough contract.

Fire Chief Daniel Smith says former police chief Nelson Ocasio and Councilman Edward Mitchell conspired to bully and embarrass him after he accused Mitchell of improper behavior for voting to award a borough contract to Mitchell's employer.

His lawsuit, filed Dec. 23 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, alleges that Mitchell and Ocasio retaliated against Smith by unnecessarily charging money to the fire company, taking away his borough vehicle, and threatening criminal charges unless he resigned.

Amid the turmoil, local officials aren't talking. Most either refused to comment, didn't return calls, or couldn't be reached.

Mitchell answered his phone Tuesday but said he was unaware of the lawsuit and referred questions to John Flannery, his lawyer. Flannery declined to discuss the suit but said Mitchell remains on the borough council and maintains his innocence in the criminal case.

"He'll tell his side of the story at the appropriate time," he said. Mitchell is due in court Friday.

Mayor Michael Ciach is facing his own legal troubles. He awaits a Jan. 19 preliminary hearing on DUI charges filed in November after he crashed his pickup truck in Chester and fled on foot.

Weeks after the mayor's arrest, Delaware County District Attorney John J. Whelan announced the theft and wiretap case against Mitchell - and credited Ciach with tipping off detectives. Whelan said it was unclear what Mitchell had intended to do with his secret borough hall surveillance system but called the kickbacks a "flagrant" scheme.

Smith's lawsuit appears to be unrelated but seems to add to the image of a local government wracked by dysfunction, infighting, and unethical, if not illegal, conduct.

In his suit, he notes that when he was on the Borough Council in 2013, he abstained from a vote to use borough money to renovate the firehouse. Mitchell didn't abstain, even though the job included contracting the engineering firm Mitchell works for.

Smith claims that the firm later overcharged for the work and that Mitchell tried to make the fire company unlawfully pay more than was required. After he spoke up in opposition, Smith alleges, he faced "a public smear campaign" from Mitchell, who was then council president.

He said Mitchell conspired with Ocasio, then the police chief, to coerce him into resigning from the council "by alleging and threatening false criminal charges, and telling [Smith] he had a choice to resign or be arrested."

Smith said Ocasio threatened to file weapons charges against him for carrying a gun, even though he had a license to carry.

The lawsuit seeks payment for damages.

Mitchell and Ocasio have yet to file responses to the lawsuit, and no lawyers have entered appearances on their behalf.

Though seemingly unrelated, the allegations of harassment overlap with the time span prosecutors say Mitchell was taking kickbacks - as much as $133,000 - from a contractor and secretly monitoring his colleagues in Borough Hall.

Whelan said his investigators, who began their probe earlier in 2016, were shocked to discover even they were recorded while conducting interviews in Borough Hall. The investigators realized this after confiscating the security system and reviewing the video, Whelan said.

"It's an outrage," he said at a December news conference.