Centre County hires lawyer for Right-to-Know expertise

In a last-minute agenda addition, Centre County commissioners unanimously approved a letter of engagement with a Harrisburg-based lawyer for additional legal assistance at their weekly meeting Tuesday.

The approval engages the service of Craig Staudenmaier, of Nauman, Smith, Shissler and Hall, as a Right-to-Know Law expert, commissioners said.

County solicitor Louis Glantz indicated March 17 that Staudenmaier would likely be sought as counsel because the county had previously worked with him. Staudenmaier assisted the county last fall, when the county started receiving Right-to-Know requests regarding judicial communications.

The motion approves hourly rates of $300 for Staudenmaier; $225 for an associate attorney; $185 for a law clerk; and $175 for a paralegal, commissioners said.

Staudenmaier’s services will be paid for through the county’s general fund, generated from property tax and fees charged by the county for services, county Administrator Tim Boyde said. The fund has paid for the services of other lawyers the commissioners have voted to hire since January.

So far, the county has paid about $24,000 for legal counsel, Boyde said. This includes fees for Carlisle-based attorney John Abom, who the county hired as special counsel the week after forgery allegations against District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller were made public, and for the Harrisburg-based firm of Fetterhoff and Zilli, hired by the county in February to provide additional legal advice to Glantz.

Not included are payments for Mary Lou Maierhofer, the attorney representing the county in lawsuits filed against the county by Common Pleas Judge Jonathan D. Grine, District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker and Parks Miller, Boyde said.

Maierhofer’s services are paid for through professional liability insurance the commissioners maintain for the county through a program offered by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Boyde said.

Staudenmaier will work with Maierhofer to provide further guidance in Right-to-Know matters, Boyde said. Staff need access to an expert in this field to continue to process RTK requests, Vice Chairman Chris Exarchos said, adding, “Staudenmaier will give daily or weekly assistance to staff to comply with requests and be available to us in any future developments as we need them.”

After a Thursday hearing before Huntingdon County Senior Judge Stewart L. Kurtz on the lawsuits involving the judges, additional filings were made Monday and Tuesday in both cases in Centre County Court.

Grine and Gillette-Walker maintain that the county violated their privacy rights and illegally released their telephone numbers when responding to Right-to-Know requests.

The law says that anything that has partial or full phone numbers is not subject to disclosure under the law and that only financial records of the courts are eligible for release. Both are asking that the court prevent any further disclosure of judicial phone records and for co-defendants in both cases to not use the released records and to destroy any copies they have.

The county position is that it was obligated to respond to the requests under the Right-to-Know Law because the records are financial, were taken from itemized Verizon phone bills and involved county-funded cellphones.

First Amendment concerns have been raised by the co-defendants in each case.

Attorneys for Theodore Tanski, an attorney with the Harrisburg-based McShane Firm and a co-defendant in the Grine suit, filed paperwork Monday asking that all claims be dismissed against him and the law firm.

Tanski filed a Right-to-Know request in February asking for cellphone communications between Grine, Parks Miller, Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob and Judge Bradley P. Lunsford from September to November last year.

In the filing, Tanski says that, even if the county illegally gave him the records, he did not break any laws by asking for and receiving them. Being ordered to not use or destroy any copies of the records would violate the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Constitution because they “constitute a matter of public concern” and would restrict Tanski’s freedom of expression, the filing states.

Tanski, who specializes in appeals and post-conviction cases, did not comment on what case he filed the Right-to-Know requests in regard to at the hearing Thursday.

However, state Superior Court docket sheets indicate Tanski represents David Adewumi, a Lemont man Grine sentenced last June to a year in prison for making false reports about being sexually assaulted by corrections officers at the Centre County prison.

Adewumi later pleaded no contest to harassment and stalking charges and was sentenced by Lunsford in October to two to 10 years in state prison on stalking and harassment charges.

A filing Tuesday by Ronald Barber, a Pittsburgh attorney representing the Shubin Law Office and its attorney Sean McGraw, co-defendants in the Gillette-Walker suit, raises similar First Amendment arguments.

The filing asks the court to dismiss the complaint against Shubin and McGraw because the phone record in question was already entered into the public record as an attachment to a filing in the case against McGraw’s client, Justin Blake.

McGraw filed a motion in March arguing that communications between members of the Centre County District Attorney's Office and Gillette-Walker and Lunsford presented the appearance of bias against Blake.