Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams, who was sworn in earlier this month, filed the paperwork Jan. 10 to drop her office’s lawsuit against the county commissioners. The lawsuit was brought last March by former District Attorney Craig Stedman, who’s now a judge on the county Court of Common Pleas. Stedman, a Republican, had alleged that the commissioners — two Republicans and one Democrat — overstepped their legal authority and improperly attempted to “encroach upon the independent powers” of his office. The commissioners had questioned Stedman’s use of drug forfeiture funds — money seized during drug arrests — and his handling of personnel matters.
Adams signaled even before she took office that she wanted to drop Stedman’s lawsuit. She filed the necessary paperwork just four days after being sworn into office.
And when, as district attorney-elect, she met with the commissioners in December, the mood reportedly was a conciliatory one — a happy change from the seething anger that marred an October county budget meeting at which Stedman clashed with Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman.
Peace has been restored to the county.
And thank goodness for it.
Thank Adams, too. This is a responsible and wise call, and marks what we hope will be the beginning of a drama-free chapter for the district attorney’s office.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Stedman and the county commissioners had grown too toxic to be a functioning one. This was mostly because Stedman balked at questions — valid questions — from the commissioners over his use of assets seized by the county’s drug task force.
When LNP | LancasterOnline reported last year that he’d used more than $21,000 of those funds to lease and maintain an SUV, the commissioners understandably were concerned.
But Stedman would brook no interference — or what he viewed as interference.
He also objected to a determination by the county’s human resources office that he had violated county policy when he suspended a veteran prosecutor for reasons “related to political campaign activities.” (The HR director also determined that Stedman’s top deputy had violated county policy by brandishing a confidential file relating to a co-worker “for political purposes” at a meeting of county GOP leaders.)
So Stedman sued the county commissioners in Commonwealth Court, and engaged a Philadelphia law firm charging $400 an hour. (It’s unclear who will pay this bill; the commissioners have said they won’t.)
As LNP | LancasterOnline reported at the time, Stedman asked the “appellate court, based in Harrisburg, to block the commissioners from conducting an audit or investigating its drug forfeiture money expenditures and reviewing the district attorney’s employment and personnel decisions.” Stedman also wanted “the court to declare that the commissioners cannot investigate him, as district attorney, ‘since he is not a county employee subject to their control or authority.’ ”
It was an outrageous and wasteful power play.
The commissioners won the first round, when the Commonwealth Court ruled it wasn’t the proper venue to hear Stedman’s claims, and transferred the case to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.
But it was a costly victory. As Carter Walker of LNP | LancasterOnline reported Tuesday, the commissioners have spent $100,000 on lawyers defending their position.
Walker has filed a public records request for information about the total cost of the legal representation Steinman received from the private law firm, Kleinbard LLC. We hope the county commissioners — who have been transparent throughout this saga — make the relevant documents available.
When asked Tuesday to comment on Adams’ decision to drop the lawsuit, Republican Commissioner Josh Parsons did not mince words.
“The former District Attorney used drug forfeiture money, that was supposed to go to fund the Drug Task Force, to secretly lease a luxury SUV for himself,” Parsons said in a statement. “When the Board of Commissioners said that, among other things, was improper, which it was, he threw a tantrum and sued us. It has now thankfully and properly been completely terminated by the new District Attorney Heather Adams. The Board of Commissioners already has a great relationship with her and we look forward to continuing to work with her.”
Parsons wasn’t exaggerating when he used the word “tantrum.”
The inane lawsuit pressed by Stedman was an unseemly use of the judicial system of which he is now a part. For an official to sue the very county he was elected to serve — and to risk leaving taxpayers with the bill for his legal vanity project — was appalling.
We’re glad District Attorney Adams has put an end to this sorry episode. Her pragmatism should serve her — and the county — well.
We’re also relieved by the evidence that the new district attorney and the commissioners are intent on establishing a productive and cooperative relationship.
At that contentious budget meeting in October, Stedman raised legitimate concerns about the way the county’s drug task force is funded. We expressed the wish in an editorial then that he had “exhibited the discipline ... to calmly make his argument.”
It appears Adams will be able to make that argument more effectively. We wish her well.