Judge: Prosecutors must try different tack if they pursue campaign finance charges against Westmoreland sheriff
Prosecutors cannot use evidence of potential campaign finance violations as part of their criminal case against Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held, a judge ruled Wednesday.
After a pretrial hearing in Cambria County, Common Pleas Judge Timothy Creany said the charges against Held do not include claims that he violated state law governing campaign donation reporting and said evidence to that effect should be the subject of separate criminal charges.
“To shift focus or add a new focus at this point, I conclude that is inappropriate,” Creany said.
Held, 44, a two-term Republican from Hempfield, was charged this year with two counts of theft and one charge of conflict of interest associated with allegations that he directed deputies within his office to perform chores for his re-election bid.
Held’s trial is slated to begin Dec. 3 in Westmoreland County.
In court Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Bobbi Jo Wagner said a search of Held’s office computers in March found a list of items donated to the sheriff’s campaign. Prosecutors subpoenaed Held to produce internal campaign records in an effort to determine whether any campaign finance laws were violated and to search for evidence supporting the current allegations.
Investigators found a list of donations, some of which were not itemized on the sheriff’s campaign finance reports filed at the Westmoreland County Courthouse, Wagner said. Candidates are required to list any donation of more than $50, she said.
Each candidate’s campaign must retain records that show every donation, no matter its value, Wagner said.
“If there are any irregularities, we can bring charges,” Wagner said. “Without seeing those documents, I can’t say if there will be new charges.”
The defense objected, saying Held was not obligated to provide information to prosecutors that could lead to new charges.
“The prosecution doesn’t have any idea, according to her own words, what’s in his campaign records. To suggest there is any irregularity is misleading and inappropriate,” defense attorney Ryan Tutera said.
Wagner said investigators could pursue Held’s campaign records through a search warrant or a public records request through Westmoreland County.
The case against Held alleges that he directed uniformed deputies to use county vehicles to solicit campaign donations for his campaign fundraiser events. Held says the accusations are false and concocted by disgruntled office staff.
Creany, a retired judge based in Cambria County, was appointed to oversee the trial after Westmoreland County’s criminal judges were recused from the case. Wednesday’s court session was held at the courthouse in Ebensburg because no courtrooms at the Westmoreland were available, the judge said.