Somerset police officer charged with taking bribe
District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, Greensburg state police Sgt. Joseph Ruggery and Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox take questions Saturday during a press conference. Jason Michael Ponczek, 33, of Johnstown faces felony and misdemeanor charges after allegedly accepting a $500 bribe in exchange for withholding charges against an individual. (Philip Petrunak)
Jason Michael Ponczek, 33, of Johnstown was arraigned Friday for bribery in official and political matters, a felony, and official oppression, a misdemeanor. He was released on $50,000 unsecured bond.
Ponczek, a borough officer since 2008, has been suspended by the department without pay.
District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser described the charges as "extremely disappointing."
Lazzari-Strasiser was joined by Greensburg state police Sgt. Joseph Ruggery and Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox as they took questions from the media during a press conference Saturday.
Ruggery, an investigating officer in the case, detailed the previous weeks' events.
Somerset Borough police responded to a residence in the borough on Jan. 22 after a complaint was filed by a neighbor. Ponczek and fellow officer Joseph Levay, along with a "ride-along" training officer, asked to enter the residence and were invited inside. The officers found and confiscated a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, Ruggery said.
Instead of taking the individual to jail, Ponczek told the man that he would wait 30 days to file the charges. Ponczek told the individual that during that time leniency could be earned by providing information about drug activity in the borough.
The individual's identity was not released by state police because he became a confidential informant.
During the following week, the man provided Ponczek with drug-related information on two occasions. On Feb. 16, Ponczek contacted the informant and the two met in the parking lot of 1st Summit Bank, located along North Center Avenue in Somerset.
Ponczek was on duty, dressed in uniform and driving a borough police cruiser.
Ponczek told the man that in exchange for the information already provided, the misdemeanor drug-possession charge would be lessened to a disorderly conduct. According to Ruggery, Ponczek told the informant that the charge would carry a fine of about $500 and the officer asked if the informant could "swing that?"
Ponczek went on to say that the fine could be handled in "one of two ways."
Ponczek could formally file the charges and the man could pay the fine at the magistrate's office, or the informant could "take care of it right here," Ruggery said.
"According to the informant, Ponczek pointed down to the passenger seat next to him, indicating that he could be given the money and the arrest would go away," Ruggery said.
"Ponczek then indicated that he had bills to pay and he and the other officer do this from time to time," according to an affidavit of probable cause.
The informant said he would consider the offer and Ponczek said he would call the informant the following day to make arrangements to meet.
That evening the informant contacted an attorney who instructed him to get in touch with state police in Somerset, Ruggery said. Somerset state police Cpl. Edward Thomas referred the investigation to state police in Greensburg because of the regular, close-working relationship that Somerset's state police and borough police share.
Ruggery and Greensburg state police Cpl. Ronald Zona led the subsequent investigation.