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Former Washington County judge charged with theft, drug possession

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 9:51 a.m.

A former Washington County judge who at one time handled more than half of the county's criminal cases stole cocaine from evidence envelopes and at least once replaced the drug with baking soda, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office said Thursday.

In one case, more than 50 grams of cocaine went missing.

Fifteen charges that Kane filed against Paul Pozonsky, 57, who served 14 years on the bench, cap a lengthy probe by a grand jury and state police. Current and former elected officials said the charges cast a cloud over the Washington County criminal justice system and could spark appeals in cases Pozonsky handled.

Former District Attorney Steven Toprani said questions about Pozonsky's handling of drug evidence arose in late summer or fall of 2011. He turned the investigation over to then-state Attorney General Linda Kelly.

“The state police and I sat down when we started to hear the complaints and determined we needed a full criminal investigation. At that time, (Pozonsky) was handling at least 50 percent of the criminal cases in the county,” Toprani said.

“It's a black cloud for Washington County.”

At least three assistant district attorneys and police who handled more than a dozen drug cases testified before the grand jury.

“These witnesses described in varying detail the ‘unusual' and ‘disturbing' occurrences,” in Pozonsky's Common Pleas courtroom, according to the 10-page presentment. The allegations outline drug cases against nine defendants in which Pozonsky sought or ordered police and prosecutors to give him packs of evidence that ranged from less than a gram of cocaine to more than 100 grams. The state grand jury noted that all courtrooms handle such evidence differently, but most judges don't personally hold it.

District Attorney Eugene Vittone said the charges “shake public confidence” and could prompt appeals.

“There are guys in jail with time on their hands that will say (Pozonsky) handled this (and appeal),” Vittone said. “But this shows the system does work and that nobody is above the law.”

Missing evidence affects at least three open cases, including drug charges against Ashlie Harris, 21, of Washington, Pa. In that case, state police say they collected 142.9 grams of cocaine. When police raided Pozonsky's chambers, they found only 89 grams of cocaine in envelopes connected to that case and another 16 grams of something that wasn't cocaine, according to the presentment.

Harris' attorney, Chris Blackwell, said the revelation that drug evidence against his client is missing could be a helpful bargaining chip for the defense but said prosecutors still have a crime lab report detailing the drug inventory seized in his client's case — before the evidence went to Pozonsky.

“I didn't know about it until this morning,” Blackwell said. “The argument that the defense is left with is our right to independently test the material to determine it is cocaine. The weight of the evidence in this case becomes significant at sentencing. There are higher penalties for having 100 grams or more. It can mean years in prison.”

Pozonsky appeared at District Judge Robert Redlinger's office Thursday morning for arraignment — just blocks from the Washington County Courthouse where he served. Redlinger released him on $25,000 unsecured bond.

Pozonsky sold his North Strabane home last year and moved to Anchorage, Alaska. He coordinated the arraignment with prosecutors while he visited Pennsylvania to see his daughter perform in a college play, said his attorney, Robert Del Greco.

“Former Judge Pozonsky has been a faithful public servant for 30 years,” Del Greco said. “When the investigation commenced in May of last year he resigned (June 29), and he was cooperating with the attorney general's office.” He earned $169,541 annually.

Del Greco would not answer specific questions about the charges.

Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca said she asked state court administrators to appoint a judge from another county to hear the preliminary hearing and the trial.

Vittone, Toprani's successor, took office in January 2012 and a month later made a quiet decision that his office would not turn over any more drug evidence to Pozonsky.

“I have a duty as a prosecutor to make sure evidence is not destroyed,” Vittone said. “We weren't sure what was happening to the evidence.”

In May of that year, O'Dell Seneca removed Pozonsky from hearing criminal cases and signed an order for state police to seize all evidence in his chambers.

They found manila envelopes labeled as being connected to cases. In many instances, some drugs were still inside but someone tampered with the envelopes and bags, and drugs were missing. In one case, two bags that were supposed to contain about 20 grams of cocaine instead held 40 grams of baking soda, the presentment said.

The charges against Pozonsky include one count of conflict of interest, eight counts of theft, one count of obstructing the administration of law, one count of misapplication of government property and four counts of drug possession.

Last fall, officials in Alaska hired Pozonsky as a workers' compensation hearing officer. He abruptly quit while officials were reviewing his hiring.

Staff writer David Conti contributed to this report. Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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