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Grand jury probes dismissal of Fayette County drunken driving case

Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Four people with connections to a drunken driving case that was initially dismissed against the nephew of a Fayette County assistant district attorney — but later reopened through the state attorney general's office — have acknowledged they were called to testify before a grand jury in Harrisburg.

All declined to reveal details of their testimony, including the district judge who dismissed the original case, the prosecuting trooper and two witnesses who testified at a preliminary hearing once the case was reopened.

“I'm not permitted to discuss anything,” said District Judge Dwight Shaner of Smock when asked to comment on his Sept. 18 testimony before the grand jury.

Proceedings of investigating grand juries are conducted in secret. Under state law, jurors and prosecutors are prohibited from publicly discussing the proceedings.

In a preliminary hearing on Dec. 13, 2011, Shaner dismissed drunken driving charges against Robert Lee Rudnik, 30, of Connellsville. Rudnik's aunt, Linda Cordaro, was the assistant district attorney assigned to prosecute cases at Shaner's office that day, but she told the Tribune-Review earlier this year that she recused herself from her nephew's case.

Jeremy Davis, a Uniontown attorney who represented Rudnik at the hearing, said Cordaro did not handle the case. The trooper did not have witnesses available to testify, Davis said, so his request for dismissal was granted.

Police did not find the defendant behind the wheel of a vehicle, Davis said on Thursday.

Rudnik is accused of fleeing when his Dodge Durango hit a mailbox and guide rail on Sept. 14, 2011, on Monarch Road in Dunbar. According to a criminal complaint, a witness told troopers that Rudnik drove away and parked his sport utility vehicle in front of a nearby residence.

The complaint said a breath test indicated Rudnik's blood alcohol content was 0.1666 percent, twice the legal limit for intoxication in Pennsylvania.

At the direction of state Deputy Attorney General L. Todd Goodwin, Trooper Joseph Ross refiled the charges, and the case was held for trial after a Sept. 9 preliminary hearing before Redstone District Judge Mike Defino.

Defino was assigned to the case when Shaner recused himself for “personal reasons,” according to a letter to President Judge John F. Wagner Jr.

Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks said this week that he has no knowledge of a grand jury investigation. Ross and two witnesses who testified at Rudnik's Sept. 9 preliminary hearing, Thomas Brown and James Glunt, Dunbar Township residents, declined to comment about their testimony before the grand jury.

“Negative,” said Ross, when contacted by phone. “No comment.”

In addition to the four individuals connected to the case, Assistant District Attorneys Doug Sepic and Michelle Kelley acknowledged having testified before the grand jury in Harrisburg, but they declined to comment.

“I don't really think I should comment on my appearance in Harrisburg until the grand jury makes a determination in whether to issue indictments against anyone,” Sepic said.

Cordaro is one of two candidates in the November election for two seats on the county bench. She has repeatedly declined additional requests for comment on Rudnik's DUI case.

When asked Tuesday about the grand jury investigation, Cordaro said she can't comment because she is “really not privy to a whole lot of information.”

Joe Peters, spokesman with the state attorney general's office, said the office's policy “is to neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of an investigation.”

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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