Stedman at budget hearing

District Attorney Craig Stedman discusses drug task force funding at a Lancaster County budget planning meeting Oct. 29, 2019.

THE ISSUE

The Lancaster County commissioners sparred with District Attorney Craig Stedman Tuesday in a meeting about the budgetary needs of the county’s drug task force. As LNP's Carter Walker reported, “Stedman said the task force is facing an immediate funding crisis and called on the three elected county commissioners to develop solutions, including more money from county taxpayers. The commissioners raised questions about Stedman's use of seized assets and said they preferred to wait until a new district attorney is elected next week before discussing a more permanent funding model.” The drug task force is funded by a mix of voluntary municipal contributions, county funds, and monies seized in the process known as civil asset forfeiture. Stedman is a Republican running for county Court of Common Pleas judge.

To call what unfolded in the county commissioners’ chamber Tuesday a “meeting” is to seriously mischaracterize it.

Hostile face-off would be more precise.

The tone was set early on by Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman, who acknowledged Stedman’s “good work” as district attorney, but then said Stedman had "zero credibility” on the issue of drug task force funding.

Stedman’s handling of that issue since last October — when the principals last gathered for a budget planning meeting — at best has been “political,” and at worst “manipulative,” Lehman said.

“No one who truly values the work of the drug task force and its officers would have responded in this way,” Lehman said, accusing the district attorney of “using the drug task force for some political gain.”

Commissioners chairman Josh Parsons, a Republican, weighed in, saying that his board was committed to public safety and “with collaboration,” the task force’s fiscal woes would have been “easily solvable.”

Parsons said the commissioners were prepared to work with Stedman to provide more resources for the drug task force, but then the district attorney sent out a letter to municipalities suggesting the commissioners were failing to act and followed up with a press conference.

“This attack was perplexing, to say the least,” Parsons said.

Parsons said it was impossible to discuss the task force’s funding “crisis” without discussing how drug forfeiture assets had been spent. Specifically, he noted that Stedman had leased a Toyota Highlander sport utility vehicle for himself using civil forfeiture monies, which are intended to help fund the drug task force. Parsons also pointed out that Stedman erroneously filed for mileage reimbursement for that leased vehicle.

And then we were off to the races.

‘Knock it off’

While — in the parlance of the playground — the commissioners may have “started it,” Stedman never seems to rise above criticism.

Indeed, he appeared at a table facing the commissioners to be nearly jumping out of his skin — he fidgeted frequently with a pencil, rapidly tapping it in the air. And when it was his turn to speak, Stedman let loose.

He raised his voice, repeatedly. He snapped at the commissioners for accusing him of a lack of transparency and told them to “knock it off.” In hushed tones captured on a hot mic, he repeatedly prodded the county detective sitting next to him to speak up during the meeting’s public comment period.

He listed the accomplishments of the district attorney’s office and said they were “in large part due to my policies,” with the emphasis on “my.”

He said he came to the meeting to talk about budget issues, but was pulled off-track by the commissioners’ remarks.

“I thought you were in the personal responsibility business, but obviously that’s not true,” Lehman said to Stedman at one point.

The district attorney began his remarks with a fight over the 15 minutes allotted for him to speak.

Then he attacked Lehman’s charge that he didn’t value the drug task force as “despicable, absolutely despicable.”

Stedman continued: “I have devoted my entire career, 28 years of my life, every single day, doing every single thing I can to protect each and every life in this county, including yours. While you’ve slept at night, I’ve been out on murder calls.”

This may be true, but it seems a bit martyrish, given that he chose to run three times to be district attorney. Keeping county residents safe is kind of a job requirement.

‘Enough said’

Stedman is right on at least one substantive matter, and we wish he had exhibited the discipline Tuesday to calmly make his argument: The way the county drug force task has been funded since 1992 — through a model that partly relies on voluntary contributions from municipalities — is unreliable and must be changed.

That point was supported by municipal and law enforcement officials who attended the meeting.

And outgoing Republican Commissioner Dennis Stuckey seemed amenable to change, though only if all the municipalities that benefit from the drug task force “put some skin in the game” — not all of them are doing so, he noted.

But Stedman’s defensiveness and — more importantly — his handling of civil forfeiture assets collected by the drug task force weaken his position.

As he’s done before, Stedman insisted at Tuesday’s meeting that the SUV he leased was not for his personal use. He also maintained that he leased it using civil forfeiture funds to save taxpayers money (so apparently his intentions were noble).

Asked by Parsons if it was appropriate for the district attorney to lease a vehicle with those funds, Detective Sgt. John Burkhart, who leads the drug task force, said the vehicle “was for our use, too.”

Parsons asked him to clarify when the drug task force began using the SUV — and Burkhart had to admit that it was after LNP reported on Stedman’s lease of the vehicle.

“That’s enough said,” Parsons responded.

Indeed it was.

We’ve been bothered by Stedman’s handling of civil forfeiture funds, and the lawsuit he filed in the state’s Commonwealth Court against the commissioners. But before Tuesday’s meeting, we had no intention of raising the subject again before next Tuesday’s election.

And we must make this clear: Our criticisms of the district attorney should not be construed as an endorsement of his opponent in the race for county Court of Common Pleas judge. They are not.

But, not for the first time, we question Stedman’s temperament and wonder if it’s suitable for the bench.

He’s done some excellent things as district attorney, but calm and judicious he is not. We’ve seen him lose his temper more than once. He doesn’t suffer fools — but blames his own foolish decisions on others.

Given that he’s a Republican in Lancaster County and therefore a shoo-in for judge, we only can hope he grows into that role.

(The video of Tuesday's meeting may be viewed here.)