Former district attorney says she respects board, will respect any discipline handed down for misconduct
The fate of former Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller's legal future has yet to be determined after a daylong hearing before the state Supreme Court disciplinary board Monday at the Pennsylvania Judicial Center.
A complaint was filed against Parks Miller in February 2017 when she was running for re-election, but failed to secure a third term. In August 2017, after she lost the primary to her successor, Bernie Cantorna, the board scheduled a hearing, which was delayed in November and again in December.
Parks Miller is accused of engaging in ex parte communications with judges. One of them, Centre County Judge Jonathan Grine, has already accepted a letter of counsel from the Judicial Conduct Board. The other charge involves the use of a fake Facebook page to "snoop."
Parks Miller appeared before three members of the board with her attorney for the hearing, James Kutz. Her long-time attorney and former Attorney General Bruce Castor also appeared with the former DA, but was later sequestered as he was appearing as a witness on Parks Miller's behalf.
Disciplinary councilman Anthony Czuchnicki opened by noting that Parks Miller had not responded to the accusations by the board in a timely manner, meaning that, by lack of a response, Parks Miller had admitted to her actions. These actions, he said, included attempts to influence a judge via email, prohibited communication with a judge while matters were under discussion, a prejudice to the administration of justice in the county and actions that resulted in a judge's violations of the rules.
Parks Miller took the stand first in her own defense, explaining that she was unable to respond to state Supreme Court decision regarding the board's accusations because, she claimed, she had asked her attorney at the time to file a response before what she believed was the end of the 10-day deadline, but he had failed to do so. When she attempted to file the response herself, she found it would not be accepted.
She later noted that she had previously been under a gag order by the judge presiding over a 2017 grand jury investigation into the issue. As the accusations included discussions on several of the same issues, she had been unable to respond at the time the accusations were made.
Parks Miller pointed out that a grand jury investigation included two handwriting experts who testified that the signature supposedly forged to be Judge Pamela Ruest's had, in fact, been found to be authentic — the accusation that had kicked off the subsequent investigations into the inappropriate emails and texts. Parks Miller said the accusations had a "devastating" impact on her reputation and called the whole affair a "political attack."
Parks Miller admitted to sending two emails to former Judge Bradley Lunsford. She started one as a group email between herself, Lunsford and other staff members regarding an inmate who was being released from prison. She said at the end of the email chain, unbeknownst to her, Lunsford had dropped the other contacts and emailed her directly saying the inmate had been released. She replied back, not knowing it was only to him, she said.
A second email between herself and Lunsford involved an inmate's transfer order, she said, and had asked the judge to set a hearing at a later date. She admitted this was a wrongdoing and was regretful for it.
She also admitted to two text messages between herself and Lunsford that had amounted to inside jokes regarding cases they had been covering. Further texts, she clarified, she was only admitting to because of her inability to respond to the accusations, as they were at this point deemed admitted.
"I'm mortified that I'm in this position," she said during her testimony. "To think these particular situations have caused any doubt in this profession is very regretful."
Regarding accusations of a Facebook page, she testified that the page had been created in order to track several shops in the county that had been dealing in bath salts. Controlled buys had been performed, and "friending" the shops through the page had let law enforcement be aware of times and places the shop would be distributing the substances. According to Parks Miller, only she, two staff members and select law enforcement agents had access to the page.
She admitted that two individuals with pending cases in the county had friended the controlled page, but no communications had been made to the individuals, nor was the page used to learn details about anyone other than the shops in question.
The bulk of the day featured five character witnesses on behalf of Parks Miller. Tom Kline, the Philadelphia attorney representing Jim and Evelyn Piazza in the Penn State hazing case regarding their son, told the board that professionally Parks Miller "was among the best" and was showed an "unrelenting commitment to her clients."
"I believe she has served this commonwealth well," he said.
Kline told the board that the Piazza case has since been taken over by the state Office of Attorney General. According to him, Cantorna recused himself from the case citing a conflict he believed had been some sort of contact or advice given to an unnamed defendant prior to taking office as district attorney.
Additional witnesses included Kristen Shirey, sister of Courtney McGhee whose husband confessed to first-degree murder and was imprisoned for life without parole; State College-based attorney Jeff Helffrich, who interned with Parks Miller and called her a "mentor;" and Clearfield County District Attorney William Shaw, who worked with Parks Miller during her time with that county's DA office.
Castor appeared as the final witness, echoing Parks Miller's initial statements that a response to the board while under a gag order might have been disastrous for both himself and his client. Any response to the board would have been public, he said, and during the time allotted to answer, the information they sought was protected.
Castor described Parks Miller as "absolutely the best courtroom lawyer, as a prosecutor, that I've ever seen."
In his closing argument, Czuchnicki noted that the role of a prosecutor is to serve the public and seek justice, not convictions or victim advocacy. Parks Miller, he said, showed poor judgment in her ex parte communications, management of the undercover Facebook page and her inability to respond to the board's accusations in the proper time frame.
"Her choices were her own," he said. "She's harmed the public perception of the judiciary and the level of trust in the criminal justice system."
Kutz countered with his closing argument, noting that Parks Miller had been advised not to respond due to a 2017 grand jury gag order and had made a detailed response when she felt the time was right. He pointed out that the whole investigation had been built on false accusations fueled by broken texts. He further pointed out that Parks Miller has not practiced law since leaving the office of district attorney, imposing her own suspension on herself.
The board ordered that Czuchnicki has 20 days after the transcript is complete to file a brief on the hearing. Kutz has 20 days to file after that. A decision is expected following the briefs.