Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller filed a defamation suit Friday against several Centre County officials and defense attorneys who have factored prominently in the ongoing courthouse saga that started in January.
The suit accuses those named in it of conspiracy, abuse of court processes, and causing emotional distress to Parks Miller, and claims that she should be awarded damages as the “target of a maliciously false, personally and politically motivated power play” designed to drive her from office and destroy her reputation.
“The motive for the concerted attack was, and continues to be, Plaintiff’s unyielding tough stance on crime and adherence to law,” Bruce Castor Jr., Parks Miller’s attorney, wrote in the complaint. “Even after the plan was exposed, the wrongdoers refused to take any steps to ameliorate the extensive injury done to Plaintiff Parks Miller.”
Commissioners Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos, county administrator Tim Boyde and solicitor Louis Glantz were each named both individually and in their official capacities, while Commissioner Michael Pipe was only named in his official capacity as a commissioner.
Judge Pamela A. Ruest and local attorneys Philip Masorti, Bernard Cantorna, Sean McGraw and Andrew Shubin were all named individually. So was Michelle Shutt, a former paralegal in Parks Miller’s office who claimed she witnessed Parks Miller forge Ruest’s signature on a bail order.
The district attorney, county commissioners and several defense attorneys have been at odds since January, when Shutt’s allegations were made public at a commissioners’ meeting. Parks Miller has claimed since then that she has been subject to a politically motivated conspiracy.
The suit further addresses these claims and accuses Shutt of making false statements and Masorti, Shubin and Cantorna, who presented an affidavit prepared by Shutt to the commissioners, of working with county government to circulate the allegations and damage her reputation. In the filing, Castor points to the meeting, when the commissioners voted on an “obscure” statute to obtain special counsel to potentially prosecute Parks Miller even though hearing the allegation was not on the agenda that day.
County officials and the attorneys have previously denied a conspiracy and Dershem and Exarchos have maintained they were working to get to the bottom of a serious accusation made by a former county employee.
Ruest had stayed out of the public battle until a grand jury report that cleared Parks Miller of the forgery was released last month. Castor alluded that civil action against Ruest may be coming at a press conference that day.
The complaint filed Friday echoes some of the statements Castor made at the conference, and accused Ruest of making false statements to Bellefonte police, who initially investigated the forgery and executed a search warrant on Parks Miller’s office in late January, and to the grand jury.
Ruest told Bellefonte police she was not aware of an investigation into Ryan Richard, which prompted the bail order, and testified before the grand jury that she couldn’t remember if she signed the document or not. Castor wrote in the complaint that Ruest authorized state police to use wiretaps during the Richard investigation before the bail order was signed, and alleges that Ruest knew she signed the order because “no judge could ever forget” the circumstances surrounding it.
The complaint also accuses McGraw and Ruest of communicating about the alleged forgery before the claims were made public in January.
Ruest declined to comment Friday afternoon. The suit will have an immediate effect on the operations of the court: there are now only two judges unable to hear criminal cases. Ruest was scheduled to hear trials on Monday and Tuesday, but Senior Judge David E. Grine will take her place.
“Until this is resolved, she’s decided that she won’t be hearing any criminal cases,” President Judge Thomas King Kistler said Friday.
Judge Bradley P. Lunsford was reassigned from hearing criminal cases in December amid claims of texting and personal relationships with the District Attorney’s Office.
Dershem, the commission chairman and one of the Republican majority commissioners, said that he hadn’t had a chance to review the paperwork filed Friday afternoon and referred the matter to Mary Lou Maierhofer, an attorney who has represented the county in lawsuits brought against county government by Parks Miller, Judge Jonathan D. Grine and District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker over the state Right-to-Know Law.
Several of the same players, like McGraw, Shubin and Cantorna, also factor in those lawsuits.
Maierhofer said she hasn’t had the opportunity to completely review the filings either and a more detailed response would come next week, but said in an email that “the County and its representatives have not done anything illegal, immoral or improper.”
When contacted Friday, Pipe, the Democratic minority commissioner, referred to statements he made shortly after the grand jury report was handed down.
Pipe said then that he accepted the report and hoped it would serve as a conclusion and would help the county move forward in a positive way, and later called for Glantz’s resignation as solicitor. His motion to ask for the resignation was not seconded, and Glantz is still Centre County solicitor.
Shubin and McGraw’s law office represents Shutt. Shubin said Friday that civil rights and free speech issues are central to what his law office does and the current matter is no different.
“Our law firm is in the business of trying to hold political leaders accountable. We’ve sued the U.S. government, school districts, state officials and local officials,” Shubin said. “We do that on behalf of people who seek to hold their government accountable.”
Masorti could not be reached for comment Friday.
Parks Miller is seeking a jury trial in the suit and also damages in excess of $50,000, plus any punitive damages, costs and attorney’s fees.