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Clerk of Courts Davis held in contempt, sentenced to jail
  • Updated

Calling it the “most undignified display of behavior” he’s seen in all of his years in the law, Washington County President Judge John DiSalle held Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis in contempt of court for her refusal to transfer juvenile case files upon his order and sentenced her to serve at least 15 days in jail.

Nearly nine months after Davis defied DiSalle’s order on Nov. 24 to facilitate the removal of the files from her office, the contempt hearing was finally held Thursday morning in which the judge ruled that she committed official misconduct as an officer of the court, displayed disobedience and exhibited misbehavior in the presence of the court.

In finding her in contempt, DiSalle sentenced Davis to serve 15 days to six months in the Washington County jail, pay a $5,000 fine and the costs of prosecution.

“It was the most undignified display of behavior of all the years of my career,” DiSalle told Davis during her sentencing. “I’ve never seen something so offensive.”

Brenda Davis

She was handcuffed and immediately escorted from the courtroom, which had a couple dozen people in attendance for the proceeding with a heavy presence of sheriff’s deputies stationed around the building. Many attorneys and court staff watched as she was led out of the building and to a sheriff’s vehicle before being driven across the street to the jail for booking. Davis said nothing as she walked out in handcuffs surrounded by an entourage of deputies.

The minimum sentence Davis will serve is 15 days, but she’s likely to be paroled after that time and finish the remainder of her punishment on probation. After she’s released, she must comply with a list of provisions – including following DiSalle’s future administrative orders – as part of her probation or she could face revocation. Davis was emotionless as she listened to the sentence.

Before being sentenced, Davis spoke in court and attempted to apologize to DiSalle, but it was clear in the judge’s mind that the damage had already been done.

“I would like to apologize for any actions that were construed by the order. I wasn’t expecting to be assaulted by sheriff’s deputies on two (occasions),” Davis said before DiSalle interrupted her. “I have followed court orders and will continue to follow your orders.”

“I accept your apology, but it’s too late,” DiSalle said.

She claimed her refusal to follow the judge’s orders was because she wanted more time to read it and consult with her personal attorney since her office didn’t have a solicitor at the time. But DiSalle responded that she never came to his courtroom upon his request that fateful day to explain herself, which could have expedited the process.

“It could’ve ended in three hours, but it didn’t,” DiSalle said of numerous appeals filed by Davis that prolonged the situation. “I spent half a day on this that should’ve been done in 10 minutes.”

Thursday’s contempt hearing lasted more than an hour and became testy at times as DiSalle and Davis’ attorneys, James DePasquale and Charles Gallo, went back and forth on the merits of the case.

At the onset of the hearing, DiSalle explained the history of the case that dated back to last summer when Davis waived many of her duties, including her office’s functions involving juvenile case files. He cited a Sept. 17 meeting between himself, Davis, Court Administrator Patrick Grimm and her office’s solicitor at the time, Dennis Makel, in which it was explained to her that the waiver was invalid.

“The meeting broke down and you vowed to file an amended waiver, which you did,” DiSalle said.

She amended the waiver and then eventually withdrew it altogether, and then appealed the situation to the state Commonwealth Court when it was clear that the court would eventually be moving the files. She then sent a letter to Grimm stating she would not allow the transfer of the juvenile case files.

“Any attempt to remove the files will be met with opposition,” Davis wrote in the letter, which DiSalle read aloud in court.

All of that led to the events of Nov. 24 in which DiSalle wrote the order transferring the juvenile case files from her office to the Juvenile Probation Office. But Davis refused to comply with that order and blocked sheriff’s deputies from taking the files, even going so far as slamming the vault door where they were stored so they could not be retrieved. She later refused to go before DiSalle to explain her actions before claiming to suffer from back pain following the altercation with the deputies.

DiSalle played two videos during Thursday’s hearing, including the one showing her interaction with the deputies. After the 10-minute video of the incident was played for the audience, the judge disputed her claim that she was assaulted in which she appeared to fall to the ground and lay there for several minutes while medics tended to her. The state Attorney General’s office investigated the incident and declined to file charges against anyone.

DePasquale argued that the issue related to the juvenile case files being moved was rectified within three hours of the initial incident when other workers in the clerk of courts office facilitated the transfer.

“Nothing occurred in the courtroom directly in front of your honor. And what did happen was cured in a few hours,” DePasquale said of the files.

DiSalle said Davis refused to come into his courtroom when he was there and that she could be heard “screaming” in a hallway about the situation. He added that she “absconded” by leaving the courthouse that day, although DePasquale said that she was seeking medical treatment for unspecified injuries.

“I can’t see how you can say this took three hours,” DiSalle said of DePasquale’s argument that the situation was fixed quickly. “We spent countless hours, days.”

Gallo also said that Davis was within her rights to continue appealing the judge’s orders to the state’s higher courts and that he as her attorney made a “good faith argument” about her office’s right to control the juvenile files. She filed multiple appeals that eventually reached the state Supreme Court, which rejected her argument in June and set the stage for the contempt hearing. DiSalle originally scheduled the hearing shortly after the Nov. 24 incident, but he rescheduled it multiple times due to the appeals.

DiSalle said during the hearing that there continue to be problems in the clerk of courts office, and that Davis has been “obstinate” in dealing with some issues in recent months.

“Matters that used to be routine have become an ordeal in the courthouse,” DiSalle said.

Even with the contempt hearing now behind her, Davis could face other legal problems after it was revealed in May that the state Attorney General’s office is investigating whether she manipulated electronic time cards for her employees to pay them when they weren’t working. No charges have been filed against anyone in that case as of Thursday.

Davis, a Republican who defeated incumbent Frank Scandale for the position in 2019, is in the middle of her first term in office. Scandale, a Democrat who served one term, was charged shortly after that November 2019 election and accused of stealing more than $97,000 from his department over several years. He pleaded guilty in October 2020 and was ordered to pay nearly $118,000 in restitution and sentenced to home confinement.


News
editor's pick
Canonsburg unveils Fitness Clusters in Town Park

CANONSBURG – Canonsburg Town Park’s walking trails are fit for an Olympian.

On Thursday, Canonsburg native and 1972 Olympic bronze medalist in javelin Bill Schmidt and his twin brother, Bob, unveiled Fitness Clusters, an outdoor exercise center just off the park’s newly paved walking trail.

“Town Park was literally day care for our mom,” said Bill, the youngest of seven, and the younger twin by 10 minutes, all of whom were raised by their single mother, Helen. “We’d get a dollar a day and spend the day.”

The Schmidts fondly remember playing in the park, where Bob work as a lifeguard for two summers. The brothers, now enjoying retirement down south, return to Canonsburg when they’re able for visits with family and friends. Both jumped at the opportunity to give back to the place that gave them so much.

“We spent a lot of time in the summers up here,” said Bob. “It’s truly a remarkable place. In Lexington, Ky., where I’ve lived for the last 22 years, I brag about the community, brag about what you’ve all done, and the commitment and the legacy and the town. Hopefully this will be part of the legacy.”

The legendary Town Park nearly wasn’t. In 1919, Canonsburg Borough leased the property, to be used as a cow pasture. Four years later, at the insistence of a committee, borough council purchased the 52 acres and turned it into a park.

In the last five years alone, about $1 million has been invested in Town Park. When Bill and Bob Schmidt decided to donate to the local attraction, the brothers wanted their contribution to make the biggest impact on the most people.

“It went from everything from a pavilion, to improving the skate park, to improving this to improving that,” said Bill. “Let’s do something that can cover everyone, discipline, demographic. This turned out great.”

Bill remembered seeing Fit-Trail, a series of exercise stations set along walking trails, at the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair.

“That was the gem of the idea,” he said. “Then it was a matter of, well, we can’t put it on the trail.”

Because of the trail’s terrain, the borough opted to construct the outdoor fitness center on a plot of flat land between the basketball courts and Yoney Pavilion. Fitness Clusters is set against a backdrop of lush green trees, a hop, skip and a jump away from the walking trail.

“I think it’s awesome. It’s tucked away back here. I hope people use it,” Bob said.

Kids of all ages are encouraged to test their strength and improve their fitness at four stations, including pull-up bars and ab benches. Doug McKenery, vice president of Friends of the Park, already has plans for a Fitness Clusters chin-up competition (as a gym teacher for Canon-McMillan, he administered fitness tests, including a pull-up contest, every year).

“Bob and Bill’s desire to give back exemplifies a civic-minded act. They obviously realize that parks are essential to a community,” said McKenery. “They insisted the donation be used to foster an active lifestyle for the youth.”

The Schmidts were joined during the site dedication ceremony by Canonsburg Mayor Dave Rhome and borough council members, members of the park board and Friends of the Park, Canon-McMillan High School cross-country runners and other local government officials and residents.

Fitness Clusters is open to the public during park hours.

“The park meant everything to us. In this day and age, anything you can do to contribute and help the youth of today, or just general health and fitness, it’s well worth the investment,” Bill said. “And if you’re going to do it, why not do it in your hometown?”


State
AP
4th county adds to ballot dispute as candidate sues to quit
A judge deciding if three Pennsylvania counties have to certify May primary vote counts including ballots lacking dates on their return envelopes learned this week that a fourth county is in the same situation — and there may be more
  • Updated

HARRISBURG – A judge deciding if three Pennsylvania counties have to certify May primary vote counts including ballots lacking dates on their return envelopes learned this week that a fourth county is in the same situation – and there may be more.

The legal dispute has held up certification of primary results for governor and U.S. Senate, and created problems for a Republican state House member who has just filed a lawsuit seeking to withdraw from his reelection contest.

Rep. Matthew Dowling’s district is in Fayette County, where the primary results have not been certified. Until he is deemed the winner of the nomination, the state isn’t letting him withdraw, and there’s a looming deadline for local party officials to pick a substitute.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is suing Berks, Fayette and Lancaster counties in an effort to force them to report ballots in envelopes without handwritten dates. Days after a lengthy hearing in the Commonwealth Court case, lawyers for the Department of State and Fayette County separately told Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer that Butler County also has not officially reported such votes.

It is unclear how the oversight occurred. Butler County’s lawyer informed a high-ranking state elections official in a June 21 letter that Butler County “will not be canvassing ballots which are not compliant with the statutes of this commonwealth.”

“We followed the law,” the chair of Butler County’s Board of Commissioners, Republican Leslie Osche, said Thursday. Osche declined to comment on a statement in a Tuesday letter to Cohn Jubelirer from Michael Fischer, a lawyer representing the Department of State, that the agency “may take further action shortly with respect to Butler County if necessary.”

Department of State press secretary Grace Griffaton wrote in an email Thursday that state officials from her department were evaluating their options.

“It is disturbing that certain counties are refusing to certify valid ballots cast by their voters despite guidance on this issue from the department, and rulings from both state and federal courts,” Griffaton said.

State law requires handwritten dates on mail-in ballot return envelopes. But after a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in May that said the dates weren’t needed in a contested Lehigh County judge race, the Wolf administration told counties they must include the disputed ballots in their tallies reported to the Department of State. After the three counties did not, the state filed suit.

In addition to the official certification of primary winners in the races for governor and U.S. Senate, the issue has also held up certification of primary winners in congressional and state legislative contests in districts that include parts of the three counties, said Fayette County’s attorney Tom King.

There are also questions about the status of Bradford County, where officials sent in certification before being pressured by the state, after which the county’s election board submitted a separate document that describes the uncertified ballots from undated envelopes.

“We agreed early on, the three commissioners, not to certify nor to count illegal ballots, which we deem those to be,” Republican Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko said Wednesday. “They weren’t counted. But they were sent in separately because of the threat of a lawsuit.”

In the Fayette County contest, three-term incumbent Dowling announced he was dropping out last month after being charged with driving under the influence.

“It has been an extremely frustrating position to be in right now, having made the difficult decision to move on in my private life and not go through this election cycle already,” Dowling said Thursday.

On Monday, Dowling and four voters from the Republican majority district sued acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman, one of Chapman’s lieutenants and the Fayette County Board of Elections, seeking a Commonwealth Court order that he be allowed to withdraw. The lawsuit says the deadline to replace him on the ballot is later this month.


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