State probation & parole official for Philadelphia district had firsthand experience - as a fugitive, records show

Dennis Powell: Hearing Dec. 29.
Dennis Powell: Hearing Dec. 29.
Posted: November 12, 2010

Perhaps more than anyone else, Dennis Powell could relate to the 9,000 or so criminals in Philadelphia on probation or parole:

Powell has been a fugitive from justice - "whereabouts unknown." He has been jailed on a warrant for multiple counts of theft and forgery. And next month, he has a scheduled court hearing for allegedly failing to pay restitution.

But unlike all those criminals, Powell had a top job in law enforcement. Until two weeks ago, Powell oversaw dozens of probation and parole officers who supervise thousands of criminals as Philadelphia's district director of the state Board of Probation and Parole.

Powell resigned Oct. 26 after board executives discovered his legal problem, leaving them in the awkward position of being asked to explain how they could have hired - and repeatedly promoted - a former fugitive with an arrest record.

Catherine McVey, parole board chairwoman, did not return a telephone call from the Daily News. A spokeswoman said McVey would have no comment.

A call to Powell's boss, Thomas Costa, was returned by spokesman Leo Dunn, who said that Powell's departure is "a personnel issue," and declined further comment.

Dunn said he couldn't discuss how Powell had slipped through the board's criminal-background check.

Numerous attempts by the Daily News to reach Powell, 49, were unsuccessful.

Powell's troubles began in the late 1980s, when he became a manager for ITT Financial Corp., a loan company with offices in Scranton and Sunbury, Northumberland County.

In June 1988, ITT executives contacted Sunbury police after an accountant found irregularities in an audit and suspected embezzlement.

Police zeroed in on Powell, who allegedly made loans to fictitious people and stole loan payments given to him by ITT customers. Powell pocketed about $5,300 , according to charges filed by the Northumberland County District Attorney.

Powell admitted to an ITT security executive that he had made fraudulent loans in the names of two fictitious people and that he took a cash payment from one Sunbury customer, according to an affidavit of probable cause.

"He indicated he spent all the stolen funds," Detective Sgt. Thomas Garlock wrote in the complaint. Powell denied taking money from three other alleged victims.

Authorities charged Powell with 29 counts, felonies and misdemeanors, including theft, forgery, misapplication of entrusted property and tampering with records.

Then Powell disappeared.

A judge issued a warrant for his arrest on Jan. 10, 1990, court records show. Powell officially became a fugitive.

The victims

"I didn't really know what became of him," Bonnie Steinhart, a victim of the theft, recently told the Daily News. "I do remember him disappearing. . . . We were pretty upset about it."

Steinhart, 53, who lives in West Cameron Township in Northumberland County, said she never really trusted Powell.

"I remember making payments down [at ITT] and being worried about stuff not being recorded," she said.

Another ITT customer, Michael Snyder, 57, told the Daily News that he used ITT to consolidate a loan. When he was slapped with a late fee even though he had paid and had a receipt, he went to the Sunbury office.

"I knew something wasn't right. Someone at ITT told me they had a problem and they took care of it," Snyder said. ITT credited him with the missing $114 payment.

In March 1992, when Powell was still a fugitive wanted on theft and forgery charges, he was hired by the state Department of Public Welfare's Office of Fraud Abuse Investigation and Recovery.

"You talk about a wolf guarding the henhouse . . . How do you get hired when you're a fugitive?" asked state Rep. Ronald Waters, D-West Philadelphia.

Waters began asking questions about Powell a few months ago, after a parole agent whom Waters declined to identify complained to him about Powell's behavior.

Powell used his DPW post as a launching pad to land the job with the parole board. But the question remains, how did he get the DPW job in the first place?

DPW spokesman Michael Race told the Daily News that he would look into it, but did not call back.

Powell enjoyed life on the lam until November 1997, when authorities finally nabbed him on the fugitive warrant and hauled him off to the Northumberland County Jail. He spent 10 days behind bars. He got released when a judge lowered his bail from $50,000 to $5,000, court records show.

Powell's criminal case was pending in Common Pleas Court in 1998 when he was hired as a state parole agent in the board's Norristown office.

Powell got the job after an extensive interview and application process. In the criminal-history section of the application, Powell was asked: Were you ever convicted of a criminal offense? OR Are you now under charges for a criminal offense? OR Have you ever forfeited bond or collateral in connection with a criminal offense?

Dunn, the parole board spokesman, declined to say how Powell answered those questions. Dunn also wouldn't say what, if anything, showed up in Powell's criminal-background check or if the check had even been done.

He did say that "it's standard procedure to run a background check on everyone."

A rapid rise

When Garlock, the Sunbury detective on Powell's criminal case and now a police chief, learned of Powell's recent job history from a Daily News reporter, he exclaimed: "Oh, my God! I don't understand how that could happen. It should have showed up when they did a check on him. . . . This is a shocker!"

As a parole agent, Powell carried a gun and had the power to make arrests. His job was to make sure parolees abided by the conditions of their release. Powell could request an arrest warrant for parole violators.

Powell moved up the parole board ranks, twice being promoted. When he was named Philadelphia's district director in September 2008 with a salary of about $80,000, Costa, the eastern regional director, sent a glowing e-mail to the staff.

"[Powell] brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this position," Costa wrote.

Powell's ride to the top hit a bump a few months ago when Waters started asking questions.

At the time, Waters was unaware of Powell's criminal case, but heard enough to be concerned and contacted McVey, parole board chairwoman.

The response?

Sherry Tate, the board's director of policy, legislative affairs and communications, showed up at Waters' West Philadelphia office with Powell, Waters recalled.

"They brought [Powell] to me to tell me what a great guy he was," Waters said. "It was like, 'I want you to fall in love with him.' I have no reason to fall in love with him."

Instead, when he learned this week of Powell's criminal case, Waters felt duped.

"How does a person with that kind of baggage get in a position to be supervisor?" Waters asked. "He's not even in compliance himself."

A parole agent last month discovered Powell's criminal case in Northumberland County. The agent e-mailed the docket to the FBI, the state attorney general, McVey and Costa.

On Oct. 22, one week after the e-mail hit in-boxes, Costa announced that Powell "will be out on extended leave." Costa named Ed Furlong as acting district director.

Four days later, Powell resigned.

Contempt hearing

It's not entirely clear what happened with Powell's criminal case. In 1998, a month before the parole board hired Powell, he entered a not-guilty plea. The criminal file ends with the case scheduled for trial in 1999.

At the time, Powell's defense attorney was fighting for prosecutors to drop the theft and forgery charges in exchange for paying restitution. The attorney, Michael Rutt, also argued that Powell had been unaware of the charges and hadn't known he was a fugitive. Rutt blamed authorities for not trying hard enough to find Powell.

Northumberland County court clerks could not find a sentencing order, which is standard, in Powell's file. The judge in the case did not return phone calls from the Daily News. The district attorney is prosecuting a case in court and his assistant said he would not be available until after Thanksgiving. Rutt said he no longer recalls details of the case.

Powell has failed to pay $4,901.20 in restitution, court records show. A contempt hearing is set for Dec. 29.

Waters was incensed upon learning of the criminal case, partly because he hadn't heard it from the parole board's McVey.

"I'm all about giving a person a second chance, but when you're a fugitive from the law, that's someone who has a contempt for the law and no respect for the law," Waters said.

"How do you supervise other law violators when you stand guilty yourself? That's even worse. At least the person who is being supervised is not a fugitive."

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