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HARRISBURG — Four news organizations have petitioned a county judge to release a key document in the widely publicized corruption case against a suspended City of DuBois official accused of stealing more than $600,000 in taxpayer and nonprofit funds.
The news outlets, including Spotlight PA, are asking the judge who oversaw the grand jury investigation into Herm Suplizio to remove the unusual seal on the presentment in the case. That document, which details the basis for filing criminal charges, is still secret more than four months after the Office of Attorney General publicly announced theft and other charges against him.
Since then, the office, led by Attorney General Michelle Henry, has refused to disclose who sought the sealing or discuss the basis for it. When asked that question again this week, a spokesperson for the office would not answer it directly.
Instead, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, spokesperson Brett Hambright said: “The Office of Attorney General is only permitted to release grand jury documents, such as a presentment, when the supervising judge has issued an order specifically authorizing public disclosure.”
Hambright did not elaborate.
Lawyers for the news organizations — which also include LNP | LancasterOnline, WITF, and WESA — argue that the law that governs grand juries presumes public access to presentments unless a judge requests secrecy until “the defendant is in custody or has been released pending trial.”
Suplizio was arrested and charged March 20, and a news release from the attorney general’s office announcing the charges was made public the same day.
Three years ago, Suplizio was the hand-picked choice to succeed the top Republican in the GOP-controlled state Senate, Joseph Scarnati of Brockway. Scarnati’s campaign committee largely bankrolled Suplizio’s bid for the seat, which ultimately failed. Scarnati is now a leading member of a prominent lobbying firm, Allegheny Strategy Partners, which Suplizio hired in 2021 to represent the City of DuBois for $5,000 per month. Neither Scarnati nor Allegheny Strategy Partners has been accused of any wrongdoing.
“Mr. Suplizio is now awaiting trial, and therefore any justifications for withholding the presentment … are no longer present,” Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who is representing the four news organizations, wrote in a court filing last month seeking to unseal Suplizio’s presentment.
Burke had “no comment” beyond the filing document.
“The public has a right to the underlying facts in criminal cases, a right that’s particularly important in cases involving public officials and the potential theft of large amounts of taxpayer dollars,” said Christopher Baxter, CEO and president of Spotlight PA. “We and our partners felt compelled to take up this fight as a matter of fundamental transparency in our government.”
"We're hopeful that our court action encourages the attorney general and judge to side with citizens and their right to more fully understand the serious public-corruption allegations being brought by a statewide investigative grand jury against an elected official,” said Tom Murse, vice president of journalism for WITF and executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline.
The level of secrecy in Suplizio’s case is unusual, though there are several reasons prosecutors might be seeking it, according to interviews with criminal defense and First Amendment lawyers.
Not only is Suplizio’s presentment shielded from public view, but so is the judge’s order sealing it. There is also no public-facing court docket that contains or lists the sealing order, which is also uncommon.
Traditionally, a court docket lists motions, a judge’s orders, and courtroom proceedings in chronological order.
When the presentment’s sealing order itself can’t be located on court dockets, “It’s a whole new level of hiding the ball,” said Terry Mutchler, the first director of the state Office of Open Records and now a First Amendment lawyer in Philadelphia.
Because there is no public-facing docket, the four news organizations were forced to contact the attorney general’s office about filing the motion to unseal Suplizio’s presentment. The office, in turn, filed that document under seal.
“It’s very odd,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Saint Vincent’s College in Latrobe.
Antkowiak, who also taught law at Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh, said prosecutors sometimes keep presentments secret to protect witnesses who they believe could face danger if their identities are revealed, such as in organized crime or drug prosecutions. Or the secrecy may mean the investigation is continuing and prosecutors don't want that revealed, he added.
Prosecutors also might conceal presentments because people who are named, but not charged, in the documents contend their reputations would be harmed if the filing is released. That was the case, for instance, in the Office of Attorney General’s investigation into decades of child sexual abuse and its cover-up in nearly every Roman Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania.
In that case, there wasn’t a presentment or criminal charges. Rather, the grand jury compiled a lengthy report that identified more than 300 priests and clergy who participated in abuse or its cover-up. At the time, news organizations challenged the fact that the grand jury report was being kept secret; the state’s Supreme Court eventually ruled that it should be released but with redactions.
Bill Costopoulos, a prominent defense attorney who has handled high-profile political corruption cases in Pennsylvania, noted that in this instance the sealing of the presentment leaves Suplizio himself unable to access it as well.
"The defendant has an absolute right to know what's in it," he said.
Lawyers for Suplizio have repeatedly declined comment. Contacted again before the publication of this story, they did not respond.
Suplizio, 63, faces 15 criminal counts — among them six felony charges that each carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. At its core, the case is about theft.
Prosecutors allege Suplizio stole more than $600,000 from the City of DuBois, the DuBois Fire Department, and the DuBois Area United Way. Among the bank accounts he allegedly used to siphon money were ones associated with the city’s annual Community Days festival. Those accounts were not part of the city’s computerized financial system prior to Suplizio’s arrest, making it difficult to trace money flowing in and out of them, according to court records in the case.
Law enforcement officials said Suplizio routinely withdrew money from those accounts. According to prosecutors, Suplizio diverted tens of thousands of dollars into personal bank accounts, and used that money to pay his credit card bill and make political contributions. For instance, he donated $3,000 over a two-year period starting in 2016 to Scarnati.
Suplizio’s criminal case will play out in Clearfield County’s Court of Common Pleas.
He appeared in court Wednesday for a status conference. He waived both his arraignment and his preliminary hearing. Michael Comber, defense attorney for Suplizio, declined to comment.
During the appearance, Senior Deputy Attorney General Summer Ford Carroll, the commonwealth’s prosecutor in its case against Suplizio, said the Office of Attorney General plans to file additional charges against him in about two weeks.
Carroll did not give details on what the new charges will be. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office told Spotlight PA, "At this point, we would have nothing additional to offer."
With their motion to unseal, the four news organizations are appealing to Allegheny County Judge Anthony Mariani. Mariani supervised the 48th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, which heard evidence in the case against Suplizio, and he sealed the grand jury’s presentment.
Spotlight PA’s Min Xian contributed reporting from Clearfield.
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