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Pa. Supreme Court hears arguments over claim that Lancaster County is responsible for former DA’s bills

  • By Dan Nephin/LNP | LancasterOnline
Outside the chambers of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on May 24, 2023.

 Rachel McDevitt / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Outside the chambers of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on May 24, 2023.

The law firm that former Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman hired for his lawsuit against the county commissioners maintains that Stedman had the authority to use money from two programs in his department to pay $69,000 in legal fees.

The Philadelphia firm, Kleinbard LLC, wants the high court to send its fee-dispute case against the county back to a lower court in hopes of obtaining a ruling that will enable it to collect the money. 

Stedman, now a county judge, sued the county commissioners in 2019, claiming they interfered with his authority as the county’s top prosecutor to independently run his office and that they were trying to improperly audit his use of drug forfeiture funds.

In arguments Tuesday, Kleinbard attorney Francis Notarianni said Stedman appropriately sought to use money from the office’s bad check restitution and drug and alcohol diversionary programs, which are funded by program participants — and not taxpayers — to pay Kleinbard.

In December 2019, shortly before he resigned as district attorney after winning election to the Court of Common Pleas, Stedman submitted a $74,000 invoice to the county for Kleinbard’s work.

The commissioners would only pay $5,000, which was the amount budgeted for the district attorney’s office to use for outside legal expenses.

Kleinbard then sued the county for the rest of the money, claiming breach of contract. A visiting court of common pleas judge ruled for the county in February 2022. Kleinbard appealed, but in April 2023 a panel of three Commonwealth Court judges affirmed the original ruling.

Budget authority at issue

While the lower courts ruled that Stedman did not have the authority to enter into a contract with Kleinbard for more than the $5,000 that was budgeted for outside legal fees, the Supreme Court justices did not focus on that in their questions.

“We must determine whether the D.A. had the authority to (reallocate program funds) under the county code,” Chief Justice Debra Todd said in framing the case.

Notarianni said the county code “applies only to appropriated money … and involves moving appropriated monies within accounts and among row offices. Here The district attorney’s use of non-appropriated money will not cause the sums appropriated in his budget to be exceeded.”

Justice Christine Donohue asked Notarianni what legal authority existed for its proposition that funds in question could be used at the district attorney’s discretion.

Notarianni said he was unaware of anything saying the district attorney did not have discretion, nor did he know of any authority that would put the funds under the commissioners’ discretion. 

In the past, the accounts have been used ”from anything for office supplies to donations to nonprofits,” he said.

Lancaster County’s attorney, Mark Bradshaw of the Harrisburg-based firm Stevens & Lee, argued the county code prohibits moving money from one line item to another.

“The two program accounts have names and the names are the drug and alcohol diversion account — nothing to do with legal fees — and the bad check restitution account, which again, has nothing to do with legal fees,” he said.

Bradshaw’s arguments also touched on the origins of the case.

“This court really ought to have very little sympathy for this law firm under the circumstances of this case,” Bradshaw said. 

Bradshaw then referenced why the suit was filed in the first place, where it was filed — initially in Commonwealth Court, which then moved it to the county court level.

“There was just an absolute, obstinate insistence on staying in the Commonwealth Court in the first place,” he said, adding that a large portion of the fee Kleinbard is seeking to recover was generated in its efforts to keep the case before the appellate court.

And, he said, it was Kleinbard’s responsibility to understand what authority Stedman had to authorize payments.

The Supreme Court did not indicate when it may rule.

Stedman is not a party to the suit. When the Commonwealth Court last year upheld the lower court ruling that the county was not responsible for the legal bills, Commissioners Josh Parson and Ray D’Agostino said it was the right decision.

Stedman’s original case against the commissioners ended when his successor, Heather Adams, dropped the lawsuit when she took office in 2020.

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