A Pennsylvania state senator’s bill awaiting state House approval would prevent county district attorneys from continuing to stay on the job without active law licenses.
The aim is to close a loophole that has enabled embattled prosecutors to continue overseeing their offices for months or longer while their licenses were suspended due to felony charges and other serious accusations, according to state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming.
Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas, who faces rape charges, is the latest in a trend of prosecutors on both sides of the political aisle charged with serious crimes or abusing the powers of their offices.
Pennsylvania’s Senate approved the “District Attorney Modernization Bill” in a rare 48-0 vote April 19 after Yaw and Sen. Wayne Langerholc joined fellow Judiciary Committee members in advancing the bill three weeks earlier.
“It’s hard to believe a district attorney wouldn’t need to have an active law license to serve – but there are loopholes and provisions that can allow it,” said Langerholc, a Richland Township Republican. “We need to clean that up. That’s why I supported that bill on the Senate floor (in April) and I still support it.”
The bill was introduced after then-Bradford County District Attorney Chad Salsman, a Republican, was accused of sexually assaulting women who were at one point his clients. He remained in office, even with his law license suspended for two months before pleading guilty to lesser crimes and resigning.
Yaw’s bill also makes it easier to replace a district attorney whose legal troubles result in a suspension.
As drafted, a first assistant would be able to step in and assume the duties on an interim basis until the suspended district attorney is reinstated or the next election occurs, so cases could continue moving through the system.
The bill has been awaiting state House approval since late spring.
Yaw’s legislative director, Matt Osenbach, said it has apparently been “unfortunately buried by a cloud of other issues at the forefront of state House members’ concerns – including calls for an election audit – all summer. But he received word by Tuesday that state house leaders are planning to consider the bill this week due to “recent events.”
“We’re hopeful this will quickly pass. We see it as a non-controversial bill,” Osenbach said.
State Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, said he’ll support efforts to move the bill through the House judiciary committee.
He’s one of 15 Republicans who serve on the committee alongside nine Democrats.
“You’re innocent until proven guilty, but if you’re facing charges as a district attorney, I think you should remove yourself from that position and title until there’s a final ruling,” Rigby said.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with holding that office and that license.”
Rigby said he was hopeful the bill will be reviewed by the House committee as soon as their next meeting.
He wasn’t sure why it didn’t move sooner, indicating “we don’t see it until it comes to us.”
“So many bills go through committees that don’t ever make it to the floor,” Rigby said. But this is a great bill and I support it.”
Thomas’ license status
Thomas is awaiting a preliminary hearing on charges of rape, strangulation, indecent assault and other charges, accused of entering a Windber woman’s home without permission and raping her on her couch after she slapped him and told him to leave.
Thomas is planning to fight the charges and is innocent, according to his defense attorney Ryan Tutera.
At this point, he remains Somerset County’s district attorney, although it is not clear whether he has been working in his office. Messages left for staffers in the district attorney’s office have not been returned for comment this week.
Thomas earns more than $185,000 annually at the post. His license to practice law remained active as of Tuesday, but it’s possible the state Supreme Court’s Discipline Board could recommend changing that.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Director of Communications Stacey Witalec said the board has the right to review complaints that might impact a law license’s status. Upon their recommendation, a Supreme Court order can impose the temporary suspension of a license or disbarment.
The review process isn’t public however. Information gathering and deliberation occurs out of the public eye – but if an action is taken, “the public will be notified,” she said. “There will be a press release issued if a decision is made.”
In recent years, the court has suspended attorneys’ licenses for both conduct involving their professional duties and detrimental conduct outside of their office, records show.
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.