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The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has sided with the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners in a lawsuit brought against the county by outgoing District Attorney Craig Stedman.

The court ruled in favor of the commissioners' argument that it was not the proper venue to hear the claims brought by Stedman and has transferred the case to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.

Stedman's attorney, Mark Seiberling, said his client will pursue the case at the county level. But District Attorney-elect Heather Adams said she will not continue the case when she comes into office in January.

Stedman sued the commissioners in March, claiming that they were interfering with his constitutional authority to independently run his office and also that they were trying to improperly audit his use of drug forfeiture funds.

"The court’s ruling today remanding his suit is a victory for good government, transparency, and the ideal that citizens own their government," the commissioners said in a statement. "Although we are concerned by the waste of taxpayer money spent on this litigation, we are very pleased by today’s ruling remanding the case from the Commonwealth Court. In short, this ruling is another victory for the County, for taxpayers, and for responsible, accountable, transparent government. We are hopeful this is the end of this sad chapter in County government history."

Seiberling said that when the case goes to Common Pleas court "the Commissioners will no longer be able to avoid the merits of this case, as they have done since its inception, and the Commissioners will finally be forced to defend their illegal and unlawful actions as outlined in the District Attorney’s complaint." 

"We are confident in our legal arguments and fully anticipate prevailing on the merits in the Lancaster County Court, especially given the fact that the Commissioners have approved the purchase of multiple cars with drug forfeiture funds since the filing of our lawsuit without requiring those purchases to be subject to the County procurement process,” he said in a statement.

Paying for the lawsuit

The commissioners are paying a private law firm, Stevens & Lee, $235 an hour to represent them. As of August 22 the county had paid the firm nearly $100,000. The county did not immediately respond to a request for an updated total of legal fees.

Cmwlth Court Opinion and Order Dismissing Stedman v BOC 11.20.19 by Carter Walker on Scribd

Stedman’s law firm, Kleinbard LLC, is charging $400 an hour. LNP obtained the letter laying out the fee structure through a public records request. A county spokesman Wednesday said the district attorney's office has not submitted a bill for the firm’s work. The commissioners have previously stated they will not pay any bills submitted for the Commonwealth Court legal fees. 

Background

Stedman had argued the  Commonwealth Court could exercise “original jurisdiction” in the case. The court handles both appeals and original civil actions brought by and against the Commonwealth.

Stedman contended that because the state attorney general audited counties’ drug forfeiture accounts, the court was able to hear the dispute in its “original jurisdiction” capacity.

But the court rejected Stedman's argument. "In our view, the commissioners have correctly characterized the attorney general as 'merely the recipient' of the county's annual report," Judge Patricia A. McCullough wrote. The opinion said the attorney general had no authority  “to conduct an audit of the county's annual report let alone an audit under the circumstances alleged in this case.”

Stedman has repeatedly claimed the attorney general has audited the office’s drug forfeiture funds when facing questions about their use, including inquiries about a 2016 Toyota Highlander he leased with the money. The lease of the sports utility vehicle, in part, precipitated the dispute between the officials.

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