Penn State attorneys asked a Centre County judge Tuesday to stop depositions a former state representative wants to conduct in his lawsuit over a hotly contested board of trustees election.
Jess Stairs narrowly lost his bid in May for one of two seats representing agricultural societies on the board, and in July his attorneys filed a notice of intent to sue the university over what they called a mishandled election.
His attorneys fired off subpoenas in July to three delegates whose votes Stairs alleged improperly influenced the election.
Penn State responded with an emergency motion asking a judge to stop the depositions, arguing the suit was filed in the wrong venue and that Stairs didn’t take the proper steps to challenge the results, according to court documents.
Judge Pamela Ruest didn’t make a ruling from the bench Tuesday. She had previously set the hearing for Penn State’s motion. A decision on whether the case can proceed might come within two weeks, said an attorney for Stairs.
Penn State argued in a filing that the case is improperly filed in civil court. They said the suit should be brought in orphans court, because the university is a nonprofit institution and the suit deals with a decision made by the board of trustees.
The board voted in May to ratify the election results.
Attorneys for the university also argued Stairs has not appropriately challenged the results. The attorneys said Stairs was invited to submit a written statement to the board, but instead he filed the notice of intent to sue just days before the trustees’ July meeting.
Harrisburg attorney Dean Piermattei, who is representing Stairs, said Penn State is simply trying to delay the case. Stairs should be on the board now, Piermattei argued, and the longer the case is delayed the more prejudiced his client is.
Ruest gave Penn State until next week to file an additional brief, and Stairs will be able to respond to that before a ruling is made, Piermattei said.
Stairs is also suing the winners of the election, board President Keith Masser and Betsy Huber.
Agriculture trustees are elected by three delegates from each county who are picked by organized agricultural societies. If more than three delegates for a county are present, they must caucus to determine how the county’s three votes will be cast, according to the rules.
Piermattei previously said two separate groups of three delegates representing Venango County arrived to vote. One group favored Huber and another Stairs. Instead of caucusing, he said, one group took control of the vote and went for Huber.
If the groups had caucused and remained divided, the votes would have been nullified and Stairs would have won because Huber won by only one vote, according to the argument.
Stairs filed a letter of protest after the vote, but an initial investigation found no complaints from trustees and others overseeing the election, nor from the Venango County delegates in question, and the trustees approved the results.
Penn State has previously said the allegations are without merit but the university said it would not comment further because of the pending litigation.