Centre County Commissioners meetings are generally not very exciting.
Nothing against the work being done at the Willowbank Building, but the meetings generally involve official rubberstamping of contracts for services that are crucially important in a lot of lives, but boiled down to their basic numbers. There are sometimes reports from an administrator about a grant project. There might be a proclamation.
That wasn’t the case on January 20, 2015.
That was the meeting where commissioners were confronted by local lawyers with allegations that Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller had forged Judge Pamela Ruest’s signature on a document.
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The allegations touched off an investigation, and ultimately, a grand jury did decline to charge Parks Miller with a crime after hearing testimony that included a handwriting expert.
That might have been the end of it. But it wasn’t.
Parks Miller filed a federal lawsuit against the county commissioners, plus their solicitor and county administrator, the attorneys who brought the allegations forward, a former paralegal whose affidavit attesting to the forgery provided the seed for the situation, and Ruest, who said she did not remember signing the document in question, a pretend bail order used as part of an investigation into threats against an assistant district attorney, Nathan Boob, who has since left the DA’s office.
The allegations of forgery stemmed from a paralegal who claimed the DA signed Judge Pamela Ruest’s name to a document. That paper was a pretend bail order, part of an investigation into threats against an assistant DA. A grand jury declined to recommend charges in the case.
Since then, there has been a monthslong legal ping-pong game with Parks Miller and her attorney, Bruce Castor, on one side and five separate legal teams representing five lawyers, a judge, three other elected officials and a paralegal on the other. The defendants have opposed the suit, and re-opposed it when the DA amended her complaint, adding things like breach of fiduciary duty and duty of loyalty to original charges including defamation, conspiracy and abuse of court process.
Castor, who has been in the news himself as the former prosecutor who declined to prosecute actor-comedian Bill Cosby for sexual assault a decade ago, has been zealous in his defense of Parks Miller and is serving the DA in multiple capacities. In addition to being her lawyer, he was also sworn in as a special assistant DA, representing the office on occasion when the civil intrigue crosses over into other courthouse business, like a request in April by Sean McGraw, one of the lawyers named in Parks Miller’s suit, to disqualify Parks Miller or her assistants from prosecuting cases against two of his clients.
He says that the DA’s office remains committed to the mission and is functioning just fine a year later.
“From a professional stand point, law enforcement excellence in Centre County remains undiminished. The DA’s office is continuing to win major victories, and DA Parks Miller has an Investigating Grand Jury up and running, has enhanced the office’s capability to conduct wiretap and undercover investigations, and improved its ability to seek forfeiture of criminal assets seized in cases,” he said.
The aggressive approach to prosecutions that DA Parks Miller brought to the job continues.
Bruce Castor, attorney for Stacy Parks Miller
“(Parks Miller) has assumed personally more cases, including two murders. So the aggressive approach to prosecutions that DA Parks Miller brought to the job continues, and has even become more effective thanks to the new tactics she has begun to employ. Plus, the DA’s office’s relationship with the County Administration is on the mend after the election. So a year later, things are much improved,” Castor said.
Defense attorneys, both those involved in the lawsuit and not, are not necessarily in agreement. Yes, they are natural opponents of the prosecution based on the adversarial nature of the court, but the lines seem more sharply drawn than under previous DAs.
It is not hard to get attorneys to say nice things about Ray Gricar, the DA who helmed the office for years, making the position full time more than 20 years ago. Gricar disappeared in 2005 but was known for being an aggressive prosecutor who frequently walked away with a conviction. Opponents like Karen Muir relished the occasional victory.
“Ray was a formidable opponent. It wasn’t a game to him,” she said last year. “I beat him a couple of times, which was always very rewarding because he was a darn good trial attorney. His closing arguments were the best I’ve ever heard — in person, on television or in a movie. They were it.”
But a number of attorneys are grumbling about the DA’s actions in a recent case.
Michael Miller, 63, of Howard, was sentenced Jan. 15 to 11 1/2 to 23 1/2 months in county jail for animal cruelty and reckless endangerment after the shooting of a dog. His attorneys included Philip Masorti, one of the defendants in her lawsuit and the employer of Parks Miller’s former paralegal, Michelle Shutt, another defendant.
Masorti did something that defense attorneys in Centre County rarely do after sentencing. He sent out a press release that accused the DA of bad behavior. Primarily, he said Parks Miller walked out of the court proceeding when she didn’t get the result she wanted.
The DA is a well-known advocate of animals and has frequently pushed for harsh charges and stiff sentences when a case involves animal cruelty. Her affection isn’t limited to dogs. She has also hit hard at cases involving cattle and even snakes.
She denied that she walked out of the hearing. Other attorneys backed up Masorti’s version of events, including Muir, who is opposing Parks Miller in those two pending murder trials, both of which will have appearances in court this week.
Masorti also said that Parks Miller should have recused herself from the case entirely because she had represented Miller in a previous case. Before becoming DA, she was Miller’s defense attorney when he received a probation sentence on a 2007 indecent assault charge.
The courtroom in question was that of President Judge Thomas King Kistler. He told the Centre Daily Times that judicial rules prevented him from commenting on the situation.
Centre County court put a decorum order in place in October 2014.
He did point to a decorum order he put in place in October 2014, before the forgery allegations were even brought forth.
“We wanted to remind everyone that there is a standard we expect for civility and behavior,” Kistler said in July 2015, after a public defender accused Parks Miller of violating the order.
There have been other instances of questionable behavior in that main courtroom. In April 2014, Parks Miller got into a heated argument with District Judge Stephen Lachman over the issue of bail for a defendant accused of stabbing a man. District Judge Tom Jordan was on the bench at the time, presiding over preliminary hearings. He told the two to take the conversation to the adjacent attorney’s room.
Once again, the defense attorney in that case was Masorti, who called the discussion an improper ex parte communication and alerted Jordan to the fact that they were discussing his client without his presence. Masorti asked to have both the DA’s office and Centre County’s minor judiciary disqualified from the case due to the “profound” stigma. The request was denied.
Parks Miller, on the other hand, was adamant that she was in the right then.
“Extremely low bail on a violent unprovoked stabbing case will always be something I speak out against, including to the judge who set it. Such an issue will never be a legitimate ground to recuse my office since that is one of our primary jobs — advocacy for public safety,” Parks Miller said at the time.
And her practices over the years bear that out. Her office has been vocal about asking for increased bail in many cases.
Castor pointed to her continued perseverance in office as part of the motivation behind the lawsuit.
“On a personal level, DA Parks Miller is fighting to recover her reputation in the wake of the malicious and false accusations leveled against her. She will not rest until those responsible are held to account for their actions. Naturally, that causes her stress, but she copes with it using the same force of personality she uses everyday doing her job,” he said.
But the defendants, rather, characterize the suit as retaliation against those that had the “temerity” to question the office.
“... Parks Miller seems to live in an alternate universe in which our forefathers never separated from a tyrannical monarchy 240 years ago, never set up a constitutional system of checks and balances, never adopted the Bill of Rights to enshrine, among other things, the organic right of the citizenry to question authority, and never established an adversarial, but impartial, judicial system ...,” wrote Jacob Cohn, attorney for McGraw and Andrew Shubin, in a brief filed Jan. 11.
All are expected to bow down to her exulted official position.
Jacob Cohn, attorney for Sean McGraw and Andrew Shubin
“Instead, her universe is an imperious one ... (A)ll are expected to ‘bow down’ to her given her exulted official position,” he wrote.
Motions to dismiss the case were denied as moot by U.S. Judge Matthew Brann after Parks Miller filed her amended complaint. A flurry of new motions and briefs, like Cohn’s, were filed by all parties in December and January as the case continues its slow slog through the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
At the same time, defense attorneys continue to defend, Ruest continues to judge and the commissioners continue to govern, although one of the defendants, Chris Exarchos, was replaced by voters in the November elections, tilting the complexion of the board to the Democratic side, Parks Miller’s party. The DA’s office continues to prosecute crimes, large and small.
“This is a very tough lady. The people of Centre County are lucky to have her. If someone I cared for was the victim of a crime there, I would be reassured knowing DA Parks Miller will pull out all the stops to make the accused atone for the crime,” Castor said.