John Baer: Rendell steps in to aid injured trooper

Scott Hawley's wife, Melissa, with their children, Casey (left) and Tyler.
Scott Hawley's wife, Melissa, with their children, Casey (left) and Tyler.
Posted: January 03, 2011

GOV. RENDELL, in his final days in office, is seeking to correct injustices that his administration created for an injured state trooper and the trooper's family.

After reading accounts in this column last month of Bradford County Trooper Scott Hawley's years-long battle with bureaucracy, the governor got directly involved and called for cutting through officialdom to, as Rendell said, "do the right thing."

The case, knotted in litigation, has drained Hawley family resources, led to loss of health insurance, hounding by bill collectors and ongoing emotional torment. It began five years ago tomorrow, when Hawley, a veteran undercover narcotics cop, was injured during a drug bust near Wilkes-Barre.

A suspect seeking escape rammed Hawley's unmarked police car head-on, resulting in a back injury to Hawley that required spinal-fusion surgery lasting nine hours.

Hawley subsequently returned to duty and reinjured his back twice, including once at home in 2008. Because the home injury was ruled unrelated to police duties and because some arbitrary appeal deadline was missed, he was denied benefits, including health coverage for his wife and two children.

The state then sent a "bill" for $41,000 that it said the family owed in overpaid benefits. The Hawleys' credit union then denied a mortgage-refinancing loan - an effort to reduce expenses - because of outstanding medical bills that the state refused to pay.

Hawley's wife, Melissa - after written pleas to State Police hierarchy, copied to the governor - said that State Police had "abandoned" one of its own, a 19-year veteran with an unblemished record. Despite help from lawyers and the troopers' union, and offers of assistance from Philly state Sen. Larry Farnese, the case seemed destined for more litigation and further suffering and uncertainty for the Hawley family.

But a break came last Wednesday, when Rendell met with administration officials and State Police Commissioner Col. Frank Pawlowski, asking that they come up with an immediate settlement restoring Hawley's benefits.

Then, typical to the case, that directive fell short, and the next day the trooper was offered only back benefits and a "non-negotiable" disability retirement Jan. 14.

Hawley is 42.

Because Rendell invited me to sit in on Wednesday's meeting in his Capitol office, I was aware of what was discussed. Once I learned the details of the offer made after the meeting, I contacted Rendell press secretary Gary Tuma, noting that the offer did not represent the governor's wishes and was instead a not-too-subtle effort to kick Hawley off the force.

By mid-afternoon New Year's Eve, Tuma contacted me to say that the governor had ordered the disability-retirement provision taken out of the agreement and called for a new offer extending full benefits to Trooper Hawley and his family for 18 months, in hopes that he can return to duty before that time period expires.

I don't know how this story ends. It seems, at last, to be at least headed in the right direction. And after writing about the credit union (where the Hawleys never missed a payment in 20 years) denying a refinance loan, suddenly the loan was approved. And that helps the family.

But even if this new agreement stands and is accepted by the Hawleys, the whole saga leaves a bad taste.

It never should have gone this far. The fact that it has speaks unpleasant things about State Police leadership, about the governor's office oversight of agencies it controls, about how bureaucracy (in the absence of sound leadership and smart oversight) runs amok and governs without decency.

No blind-eyed rules or regulations should punish those sworn to serve and protect, especially those injured in the act of service.

And no society should allow front-line defenders to be diminished, to be treated like paperwork, like names on a page. They are, after all, the only true protectors of whatever peace, law or justice any of us can find.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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