State AG files 2 criminal charges against former Fayette County district judge
The state Attorney General's Office has accused a retired Fayette County district judge of fixing a drunken-driving case filed against the nephew of a former assistant district attorney and lying before a statewide investigating grand jury about his interaction with the prosecuting trooper.
A 17-month investigation culminated with an Aug. 19 grand jury presentment. Dwight K. Shaner, 71, of Dunbar was charged on Thursday by Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office with perjury and obstructing administration of law.
Shaner did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In a criminal complaint, Special Agent Gary Tallent of the Attorney General's Office said an investigation was begun when Uniontown resident Brian Oros filed a complaint alleging Shaner had “fixed” a drunken-driving case against Robert Rudnik of Connellsville.
Rudnik is the nephew of Judge Linda Cordaro, who was an assistant district attorney when he was charged with DUI on Sept. 14, 2011. Cordaro's duties included prosecuting cases assigned to Shaner's office in Smock, according to the 16-page presentment.
It was Rudnik's second drunken-driving offense in seven months, which jeopardized his chances of admission to a probationary program for first-time offenders, the presentment states.
The grand jury said Shaner should have recused himself from presiding over Rudnik's Dec. 13, 2011, preliminary hearing because of his “longstanding relationship” with Cordaro, who had been prosecuting cases at his office since 2006.
Instead, the jury found, Cordaro recused herself from the hearing minutes before it was to start, and Shaner heard the case — over the objections of the trooper who filed the charges, Joseph Ross.
“MDJ Shaner called the case in the courtroom and set off a chain of events that almost resulted in Rudnik escaping justice for his DUI and hit-and-run offenses,” the jurors said in the presentment.
Ross told the grand jury he did not subpoena witnesses for the hearing because in similar cases, none was necessary.
Ross testified that when he arrived at the office for the hearing, Cordaro asked him as she was leaving if he had any witnesses. The question “threw up a red flag,” Ross testified.
When Cordaro testified before the grand jury, she denied asking Ross about witnesses and said she “merely informed Ross she would not handle the matter,” according to the presentment.
Cordaro is not charged. She declined comment on Thursday.
Ross said he found it “weird” when Rudnik's defense attorney, Jeremy Davis of Uniontown, asked him the same question. When Shaner repeated the request from the bench, Ross told the grand jury, he “now believed that had a problem” and asked for a continuance.
Shaner denied the request and dismissed the charges, the presentment states. Shaner and Cordaro testified a dismissal was not unusual, but the grand jury noted that Shaner's secretary, Kimberly Jacobs, testified otherwise.
“This does not appear to be the case, however, particularly when factoring in the Cordaro recusal at such a late hour,” the grand jury said. “Jacobs indicated it was particularly unusual for MDJ Shaner not to grant a continuance request by the commonwealth on a ‘first listing.' ”
“In fact, she could not recall a single instance in 17 years when MDJ Shaner had denied such a request,” the grand jury said. “She also found it particularly odd that the continuance was denied when it involved Cordaro's nephew.”
Other assistant district attorneys who appeared before the grand jury testified that “no deals” were ever offered in DUI cases.
“One prosecutor testified that, if an ADA dropped a DUI or even changed a charge to a different subsection of the statute, the ADA ‘would be fired,' ” the grand jury said.
Ross told the grand jury he was preparing to leave Shaner's courtroom following the hearing when Shaner had him step into his office.
“Ross testified MDJ Shaner told him, ‘Hey, trooper, I hope you understand. ... I'm catching some heat from Linda (Cordaro) because that is her nephew,'” according to the presentment.
Shaner told the grand jury he dismissed the case because Ross failed to ask for a continuance. Jurors found that not to be credible, finding that other witnesses, including Rudnik and his mother, Deborah Rudnik, all testified they “specifically recalled Ross asking for a continuance and the request being denied.”
“The grand jury does not find MDJ Shaner's explanation credible and believes it to be directly contradicted by multiple witnesses,” jurors said. “It was, in fact, an effort to explain the dismissal of a case that occurred for an improper and illegal purpose.”
In a news release, the Attorney General's Office said Shaner is accused of “lying to the grand jury about his actions at the preliminary hearing and his interactions with the PSP trooper who handled the case.”
The charges against Shaner were filed in Dauphin County before Lower Paxton Township District Judge William C. Wenner. A hearing date has not been set.
In a related action, the state's Judicial Conduct Board has filed a petition seeking an interim suspension against Shaner. The suspension would prohibit Shaner from any judicial assignments and halt any action on his pending application for senior judge status, pending resolution of the criminal charges.
Rudnik's DUI charges stemmed from an incident in which his Dodge Durango hit a mailbox and guardrail at 1:55 a.m. along Monarch Road in Dunbar and he fled the scene. The Attorney General's Office directed a trooper to refile the DUI charges on July 12, 2013.
Rudnik entered guilty pleas in February. He was sentenced to six months' intermediate punishment and 60 days on house arrest with electronic monitoring. His driver's license was suspended for one year.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or email@example.com.