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If Mayor-elect Helfrich is challenged, York County DA doesn't want to handle it

Written by Gary Haber/The York Daily Record | Dec 1, 2017 12:16 PM
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York city mayor-elect Michael Helfrich acknowledges the crowd of supporters at the Holy Hound Taproom following the announcement of his victory over C. Kim Bracey on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record).

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney recused himself in the matter. Kearney, as an attorney, had represented York Mayor-elect Michael Helfrich.

(York) -- The York County District Attorney's office has referred to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office any possible legal challenge to York Mayor-elect Michael Helfrich's eligibility to serve as mayor because of a 26-year-old felony conviction.

"The Office of Attorney General is reviewing the current York County District Attorney's request to refer this case," Joe Grace, a spokesman for Shapiro, said in an email late Wednesday.

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney recused himself, and the matter was referred to Shapiro's office last week, said Kyle King, a spokesman for Kearney. 

Kearney, while in private practice, represented Helfrich on drug charges in York County Court of Common Pleas in 1991.

The issue of Helfrich's eliigibility was raised during the public comment portion of the Nov. 21 city council meeting.

Ricardo Loper, 64, asked council members whether they intend to file a lawsuit challenging Helfrich's ability to serve as mayor, or whether private citizens would have to file such a lawsuit.

"I believe we need to enforce the laws," Loper said according to a video of the meeting. "This is not personal. This is not racial. This is not any of those things. Either the law applies to all or it applies to none."

City Council Vice President Henry Nixon declined to comment to the York Daily Record. Council members Judy Ritter-Dickson, Renee Nelson and Sandee Walker could not be reached.

Helfrich pleaded guilty in 1991 in York County Court of Common Pleas to conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, according to court records.

After Helfrich was first elected to city council in 2011, Mayor Kim Bracey filed a lawsuit in York County Court of Common Pleas to prevent Helfrich from taking office.

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York city mayor-elect Michael Helfrich. (Photo by Jason Plotkin/York Daily Record

Bracey's lawsuit hinged on a section of the Pennsylvania constitution that says a person is disqualified from holding office in Pennsylvania if he or she is "convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime," 

The case was decided by Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh, who ruled in 2012 that neither of the felonies to which Helfrich pleaded guilty were infamous crimes.

Bracey didn't appeal Linebaugh's decision.

In matters questioning an official's eligibility under the state constitution to hold office, the local district attorney's office gets the first chance to file a lawsuit.

If it declines, the Attorney General's office has the option of bringing a case. If the AG's office declines, members of the public may bring a lawsuit.

Helfrich, meanwhile, said he isn't spending time worrying about whether he will be able to take office.

Instead, the York City Council president has been busy meeting with city department heads, business leaders and members of his transition teams.

"I'm working on the city's future, that's what I'm working on," said Helfrich who defeated Bracey and Libertarian Party candidate Dave Moser in the general election on Nov. 7.

Hellfrich is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 2.

Helfrich on Monday said a court has already ruled that his felony conviction doesn't prevent him from holding office.

"There's a judgment from Aug. 1, 2012 that says I am able to serve," he said.

However, a ruling on Helfrich's eligibility to serve on city council wouldn't preclude a lawsuit challenging his ability to serve as mayor, Bruce Ledowitz, an associate dean and professor at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, told the York Daily Record earlier this month.

Charles Hobbs, the attorney who represented Helfrich in the civil case over his eligibility to serve on city council, said Linebaugh's decision applies as well to Helfrich's ability to serve as mayor.

Bringing another case this time would be double jeopardy, Hobbs said.

"We are not obligated to litigate the same issue over and over again in our lives," he said.


This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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