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Worries of unease among employees who testified in Bucks register of wills probe

Dead men tell no tales, but those who probate their wills and estates in Bucks County certainly have. Whether their words will come back to haunt them is a concern that county officials are trying to quell.

Dead men tell no tales, but those who probate their wills and estates in Bucks County certainly have.

Whether their words will come back to haunt them is a concern that county officials are trying to quell.

For almost eight months, past and present employees of the Register of Wills Office regaled a county grand jury with their workplace woes.

They told of a partisan office where employees were pressured to do political work and illegally paid with public funds. Of a secret "pink book" where illicit compensatory time was recorded, locked away from view, and ultimately shredded along with other damning documents.

They even told of a designated "bad-girl chair" in the office, where those who dissented were forced to work.

On March 4, authorities arrested Register of Wills Barbara Reilly and three current or former top aides on corruption-related charges.

The takedown of Reilly, First Deputy James McCullen, former Second Deputy Rebecca Kiefer, and former administrator Candace Quinn essentially wiped out what once had been the top layer of management in the 22-person office.

As a condition of their bail, the defendants - some of whom allegedly swore vengeance upon their accusers - are allowed no contact with their former underlings.

Some employees who testified about their bosses, however, may still be uneasy.

Not only has Reilly regained a measure of authority over the office, but the two women now running the day-to-day operations have themselves been accused of - though not charged with - wrongdoing by employees they currently supervise.

"Does it concern me? I would be lying if I said no," said Brian Hessenthaler, the county's chief operating officer, who popped in several times last week to see how the office was running.

"There are a lot of good people down there who want to do their jobs," said Hessenthaler, stressing that he had received no complaints so far. "We want to make sure they can do that without having to look over their shoulders."

While county administrators set budgets for row offices and negotiate contracts with their workers, they have little statutory control over how the offices are run. But Hessenthaler said he believes the county's authority does include the general well-being of those employees.

According to District Attorney David Heckler, the grand-jury investigation found "a very substantial level of intimidation and oppression of many of the employees in the office" by the defendants.

In a 240-page grand-jury presentment, workers describe a patronage haven where only Republican hires were considered and the mere presence of a Democratic official in the office made Reilly angry.

Employees blamed the rants of capricious managers for a stroke suffered by one worker at the end of her shift and for another's being taken from work to a hospital after a mental breakdown, the presentment said.

Kiefer, 64, and Quinn, 53, have left their jobs. But Reilly last week regained some supervisory say over the elected position she has held for 35 years.

A compromise reached with Heckler now allows her to direct the office through two intermediaries - her solicitor, Harold Vikoren, and administrator Sheila Bass, a longtime friend of Reilly's and one of the two on-site supervisors running the office.

Reilly is "very pleased that she and the D.A.'s Office could reach an agreement on this so that she can get back to work," said her attorney, Michael Goodwin.

As a practical matter, Reilly, 74, who draws a salary of more than $84,000, has rarely been in the office since early summer because of medical problems.

McCullen, 75, described by prosecutors as the least oppressive of the accused, likely will not seek a change in bail terms similar to Reilly's until a judge is appointed to the case, said his lawyer, David Knight.

Of 35 grand-jury witnesses, 13 currently work in the office. They include Bass and Patricia Murphy, the second deputy who is overseeing daily operations with Bass.

Hessenthaler said the office "hasn't missed a beat" under Bass and Murphy.

"These are the two highest in command who are left over, so that's why they are running it in the absence of everyone else," he said.

But while neither was charged, Murphy and Bass faced accusations from some of their current employees.

They said that Bass, 71, had induced them to work at the polls, distributed sign-up sheets, and recorded the undocumented comp time in the "pink book" ledger. The workers said she had told them to keep their political work a secret.

Bass testified she had been friends with Reilly since 1975 and felt especially loyal to her and to Kiefer. And she admitted initially lying to detectives about the "pink book" and its contents.

Reached at work last week, she declined to comment.

Murphy, 49, testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution. According to Heckler, she had disobeyed Quinn's orders to shred incriminating office documents last spring after an investigator from the county Controller's Office began interviewing employees.

Instead, Murphy hid the documents around the office or took them home bit by bit, later turning them over to investigators.

Murphy testified "that she felt used and manipulated by management," the presentment said. She "strongly emphasized that she did not see herself as part of a clique with Quinn, Reilly, Bass, and Kiefer, and that she only wanted to do the right thing."

But some employees testified that Murphy, like Bass, was involved in signing them up for political work and maintaining the "pink book." Some said she had deleted information about political work from office computers and had sat in on meetings in which workers interviewed by the Controller's Office were debriefed by supervisors about what they had said.

Murphy declined to comment. Her lawyer, Robert Mancini, called her "the one who didn't destroy documents and saved all that incriminating evidence and turned it over to the D.A. That is worth something."

Mancini said he did not know "whether anybody in that office has animosity" toward Murphy. "Despite all of this, my impression is that she really enjoys working in that office - and the people who are working with her."