Somerset DA Thomas, suspended, sues county for compensation | New

SOMERSET, Pa. — Suspended Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas is suing the county for suspending his pay and benefits.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, a Pittsburgh law firm alleges that the state Constitution protects elected district attorneys from a “decrease” in their pay while in office.

And even though a state law approved in 2021 — after Thomas’ license was suspended — barred elected prosecutors from serving while their license was suspended, that change was not retroactive, the Pittsburgh attorney wrote. , Richard Haft.

Haft called the county’s decision illegal.

“(Thomas) believes and affirms that the action of the defendants in suppressing salary and benefits was done without due process, because (Thomas) maintained his innocence regarding all charges against him,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit could be the first legal challenge to the state’s District Attorney Modernization Act, which Somerset County officials have called a constitutional amendment they had to abide by when making the decision to suspend Thomas’ salary in 2021.

Thomas was accused of sexually assaulting an acquaintance, a female Windber, inside his home last fall. Investigators said Thomas strangled her during the act before she could escape – and agreed to leave after she promised she would not contact the police.

Thomas’ attorney license was suspended Oct. 27 by the state Supreme Court following a petition by the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which reviews attorney conduct issues.

A bill introduced by a Republican senator from Lycoming County in early 2021 – after a northern Pennsylvania prosecutor was charged with unrelated sex crimes – passed in November 2021, requiring elected prosecutors to detain active law licenses during their tenure.

By then, Thomas had already taken a voluntary leave of absence from his role overseeing the Somerset County Attorney’s Office, but continued to receive his salary for his work of $185,000 a year.

The Somerset County Wages Board – commissioners Gerald Walker, Colleen Dawson and Pamela Tokar-Ickes, along with then-treasurer Donna Matsko-Schmitt – halted paychecks after the law was signed. They cited advice from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association to support their decision, including a five-page letter describing the recently passed Law 88 as “constitutional.”

Thomas’ lawsuit is brought against the county of Somerset – home to the wages board which took action against him and the offices that make up the board, including the offices of the commissioners and the treasurer.

The county was notified of the lawsuit on Tuesday, Somerset County attorney Michael Barbera said. He said the county will review the complaint and file a response within the court-ordered 20-day deadline.

“This (lawsuit) is brand new right now. As with any ongoing litigation, I can’t comment on it,” Barbera said, “but obviously the county will file a response.”

Thomas’ lawsuit is asking for his regular salary and benefits to be restored – along with any back pay he’s lost since last fall to be awarded to him.

Haft wrote that despite actions taken by the Disciplinary Board and county officials, Thomas remains the duly elected Somerset County District Attorney. And he was neither impeached nor resigned — the only permitted reasons for his pay cut, Haft argued.

The nine-page brief seeks declaratory judgment from the Somerset County Court of Common Pleas.

County courts have so far sought outside judges to handle cases involving Thomas to avoid conflicts of interest, as he handled cases through the local court system for two years in his role. district attorney.

Somerset County Chairman Judge D. Gregory Geary said he plans to contact the Pennsylvania Courts Administrative Office to also appoint an out-of-county judge to oversee this case – once the case reaches the point where it is necessary for a judge to get involved.

Cambria County appoints attorney for Thomas

A well-known defense attorney will represent Thomas in a Cambria County criminal case — paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Thomas was under house arrest for part of the year and told Somerset County court officials he could not “manage on his own” or his family in May. He was unable to work as a lawyer for 10 months – but was allowed to work in his father’s car workshop under electronic surveillance this summer.

Citizens accused of crimes have a constitutional right to counsel in the United States.

To be eligible for paid public representation, a person must first file an application with the public defender’s office in the county where they are charged, outlining their financial situation, said Cambria County Public Defender Maribeth Shaffer. .

Schaffer said she could not discuss this process involving Thomas due to confidentiality guidelines – but was “deemed to be qualified”, saying she was unable to elaborate.

In situations where a public defender believes a person is unqualified or points out that there is a conflict preventing them from representing a client, the presiding county judge has the final say.

Court records show Cambria County Chairman Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III approved the appointment of outside counsel, Blair County defense attorney Thomas Dickey, to represent the suspended prosecutor in the the national case against him.

As of June 2022, Cambria County’s fee schedule for court-appointed attorneys shows that Dickey would earn $75 an hour for his work – a fraction of the rate attorneys often receive for representing clients in criminal cases. . Separate fees are paid for pleas or trials, the fee schedule indicates.

Thomas told the Tribune-Democrat that he dealt with Dickey both while working as a defense attorney and during his time in the DA’s office and was “impressed with his knowledge of the law and his keen sense of the courtroom”.

Thomas is accused of assaulting his wife on his way home from a bar in Johnstown last year – an act he and his wife maintain did not take place. A Westmoreland County woman who said she witnessed the act during a FaceTime video call with Amy Thomas that night argues otherwise.

“They weaponized laws meant to protect victims of domestic violence and fabricated a bogus complaint (against me),” Thomas said last week of prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office.

Thomas asked for help after his initial attorney in that case, Joe Otte, received court approval in August to step aside from the case on grounds protected by solicitor-client privilege.

The case is currently in the early stages of progressing to trial. A discovery motion was filed last week – a common step to obtain information gathered by prosecutors when building their case. Dickey also filed a motion to postpone the trial until a future court term, according to court records online.

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