Removal not so easy for Pennsylvania elected officials under fire

In recent months, Centre County has had a number of officials facing issues that raised questions from the public.

Harris Township Supervisor Christopher Lee was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of child exploitation and child pornography. Judge Bradley P. Lunsford was removed from hearing most criminal cases. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller is accused of forgery.

At the state level, the issue extends to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who had a grand jury recommend charges for leaking information, or to former treasurer Rob McCord, who entered a guilty plea this week to federal extortion charges.

Except for McCord, none of them has been found guilty of anything. Lunsford and Parks Miller have not even been charged with a crime. But still, water-cooler conversations and comment sections are littered with calls to fire or suspend them.

The problem? They aren’t employees. They are elected officials. While an employer has the ability to weigh the situation and make a judgment call, deciding to let a worker go or wait for more information or even give a second chance, that’s not necessarily an option for an elected official.

On Monday, Lee, incarcerated in Columbia County, submitted a letter of resignation to Harris Township after four months of being unable to attend meetings, take part in discussions and cast votes.

Two legislators applauded that move Thursday.

“His problems prevented him from doing his job,” said state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Benner Towsnhip.

“I believe he did the right thing,” said state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township.

But both are hesitant to see such situations pushed to the point of removal.

“We always try to be deferential to due process,” Corman said.

“That’s what makes us a democratic society,” Conklin said.

He acknowledged that the issue of allegations or actual problems of corruption has become a “rampant” problem, and one that officials need to think about.

“We are held to a higher standard. We should be held to a higher standard. We are supposed to be ambassadors of our communities, role models,” he said. “As an elected official, you are not entitled to anything. Quite the opposite, both in your public life and your private life.”

Corman said there are “archaic” steps in place that allow for removal of elected officials. According to the state constitution, certain “infamous crimes,” including forgery, perjury, embezzlement and bribery, can prompt a removal. A court can remove for conviction of an infamous crime. Commit that crime in office and you can also be impeached. The governor also can remove an official with a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

There is no hard and fast rule that says a certain outcome should happen in the event of allegations, which might have nothing behind them.

“False allegations could be made for no other reason than to get someone out of office,” said Conklin. “Every situation is different. One of the things I don’t want to do is paint every instance with the same brush.”

Corman also said that an official should be allowed to defend himself or herself from charges but needs to weigh whether mounting a defense is interfering with his or her job.

“We always have to be careful when you’re talking about an elected official,” said Corman. “The people elected this person.”