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Lancaster County's intragovernmental feud: Here's the latest in the district attorney, commissioners court case

Lancaster County Government Center

The Lancaster County Government Center is located at 150 N. Queen St., Lancaster.

Lancaster County elected officials have been trading jabs this summer in documents filed with the state’s Commonwealth Court.

District Attorney Craig Stedman sued Lancaster County commissioners in March, seeking to block the commissioners from reviewing his use of drug forfeiture proceeds and interfering in personnel matters in the prosecutor’s office.

Barbs traded in the documents include the prosecutor’s contention that the county solicitor has been “weaponized” by the commissioners, and the commissioners’ assertion that the district attorney’s employment actions “smacked of politics.”

The case is tentatively scheduled for argument in Harrisburg during the court’s September session.

What is the latest court filing?

Stedman, through his Philadelphia-based lawyers, filed a brief July 12. They argued the case is “much more” than the commissioners’ portrayal of the case as a local political feud.

“The commissioners have undertaken a multi-phased plan to encroach upon, interfere with, intimidate, and retaliate against the Lancaster County District Attorney in the performance of his duties and responsibilities as an independent constitutional officer,” the document says. The prosecutor had to sue the commissioners, “not because he wanted to file, but because he had to file to protect important constitutional and statutory separations between coordinated branches of government.”

Stedman Cmwlth Ct Brief 7.12.19 by Carter Walker on Scribd

The document also touches on a sports utility vehicle Stedman leased using money seized from drug forfeitures. The prosecutor said prior purchases using drug forfeiture funds had not gone through the county’s procurement process and pointed to a signed letter from the county controller that said the district attorney was “duly authorized to lease and/or finance” the vehicle.

Controller Brian Hurter said in a March statement that his understanding was that the letter stated that Stedman “has the ability to act in the authority” of district attorney, but the controller himself does not have the authority to sign off on leases.

Stedman also said in the July 12 filing that his suspension of veteran prosecutor Mark Fetterman was done in consultation with human resources, though questions remain about what information Stedman gave the human resources department at the time. The July 12 filing did not clarify what information he provided the office.

The court document also discussed the commissioners blocking payment of Stedman’s legal expenses. The prosecutor said he had no choice but to incur the cost of outside counsel because “the county commissioners weaponized the county solicitor against District Attorney Stedman in this dispute,” citing statements and letters from the solicitor.

What are the district attorney and commissioners arguing over?

The case began in March when Stedman petitioned the court to intervene in a dispute between his office and the commissioners.

DA Stedman sues Lancaster County commissioners

The commissioners had released public statements on issues within the prosecutor’s office, including Stedman’s lease of the SUV and subsequent mileage reimbursement.

At the same time, the county’s human resources department issued a “final summary” on two complaints related to employees in the prosecutor’s office. The human resources department determined that Stedman suspended Fetterman, for reasons “related to political campaign activity” and also recommended he fire his top deputy for taking an employee file to a local Republican party meeting.

Stedman claimed in his petition that these actions encroach on the independent powers of his office. He also claimed that the commissioners are attempting to audit or investigate the drug forfeiture expenses, which he argues violates the forfeiture statute.

How did the commissioners respond?

The commissioners have argued Stedman’s lawsuit is an attempt to “silence” his critics, and that the matter is a “local, political dispute” that hadn’t reached a level where court intervention was needed.

“When the Commissioners voiced their concerns about Stedman’s use of drug forfeiture money to lease himself an SUV (and then claim mileage for its use), and certain personnel actions which smacked of politics, they were indignantly informed that the District Attorney would sue them for defamation should they continue to speak up,” the board said in its June 21 filing. “Thus, Stedman filed this action as part of his attempt to silence the Commissioners.”

Brief in Support of the Preliminary Objections 6.21.19 by Carter Walker on Scribd

The commissioners assert they are acting within their First Amendment rights to comment on issues of public concern and that the human resources determinations were merely recommendations and not directives that usurp Stedman’s management authority.

“Stedman apparently believes his personal displeasure with the commissioners’ public comments on personnel matters somehow represents a justiciable case,” the commissioners argued in the June 21 filing. “Nonetheless, this ‘dispute’ represents nothing more than a matter of public concern that Stedman wishes was kept private.”