Philipsburg gun sales spark questions of impropriety

For the CDTFebruary 26, 2013 

— Questions about gun sales resulted in one Philipsburg borough councilman calling for the resignation of the council’s president Monday.

The weapons in question are relics of the defunct Philipsburg Police Department, which ceased to exist about 10 years ago. According to Borough Secretary Shelley Walstrom, she was approached by retiring Borough Manager Jan McDonald about purchasing one of five guns. Two others were sold to borough employees Gary McDonald and Lee Gunter, and two weapons remain unsold. Walstrom says the guns were sold for $300 apiece, and that the money was deposited in the general fund.

According to Councilman Walt Chorle, there are problems with this. First, he said, McDonald had no right to sell the guns.

“We discussed it briefly for a couple of minutes. That was it,” said Councilwoman Barbara Gette.

Further, Chorle questioned the mechanics of the sale. McDonald used Philipsburg-area gun seller Belding & Mull to appraise and sell the weapons. The problem is Belding & Mull is council President Fred Grauch’s company, and Chorle called that a conflict of interest.

Several residents attended the meeting with apparent inside information about the controversy. Sharon Goss came prepared with citations of state code that call for appraisals and sale of items at fair market value. According to her information, if the weapons were not sold for fair market value, they have to be returned, advertised for sale and sold at that price to avoid ethics violations. She had the paperwork to file those violations printed and in hand.

McDonald did not attend the meeting, which would have been his last before his official retirement Thursday. He left no statement explaining the action.

Grauch, however, said the manager’s action was legal. It was based on a previous board direction that had been voted on years ago and, for whatever reason, not acted upon.

Gette pointed to such a vote herself while criticizing the action. Her research had turned up a vote to sell the guns nine years ago, after the department was closed. At the same meeting, Borough Council voted to sell the police car, which did happen promptly. The guns, however, languished in storage.

Grauch said that after discussion of their disposition, McDonald turned up evidence of a previous vote and took legal steps following that council directive.

“I do believe the council made a motion and passed it and gave that direction to the borough manager,” he said.

Grauch’s participation, however, led to Chorle and Gette questioning the whole process. Who appraised the guns? Who checked the backgrounds of the purchasers? Where were the receipts and exactly where did the money go?

“You violated the public trust to the Nth degree,” said Gette, who said the guns should have been taken to the state police for destruction or to a different, independent dealer. In his defense, Grauch said that he was able to save the borough money by not charging for the appraisals or taking a commission on the sales.

Grauch tried to move the meeting along but not before Chorle made a moton for his removal as president. Gette seconded. The motion failed four to two.

“There’s always next month,” said Chorle, who said he intends to make the motion under new business at every meeting.

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