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Fayette's judges recuse themselves from prison referendum case

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

All of Fayette County's active judges have recused themselves from a case that seeks to give voters a say in a proposed $32 million prison.

An organization calling itself the Prison Referendum Group filed a petition seeking a judge's order that would force the county election board to place the question on the May 20 ballot.

The group gathered more than 3,000 signatures, but the board, which consists of the three county commissioners, voted 2-1 to reject it.

President Judge John F. Wagner Jr. had been overseeing the petition until Friday, when he recused himself. In doing so, Wagner noted the Prison Referendum Group had asked for him to step aside if he “had any connection to the prison issue.”

Wagner noted that because he authored a June 17, 2013, letter, in support “of construction of the new prison to replace the more-than-100-year-old existing facility,” he honored their request to recuse himself.

Three of the five other judges — Nancy Vernon, Steve Leskinen and Joseph George Jr. — this week issued orders recusing themselves. The judges referenced Wagner's recusal and said they were stepping aside “to avoid any conceivable issue of impropriety, as well.”

Judge Linda Cordaro had recused herself on April 9.

The petition was reassigned to one of the county's three part-time judges, Senior Judge Gerald Solomon, said Karen Kuhn, court administrator.

Should Solomon recuse himself, it will be reassigned to either of the other senior judges, Ralph Warman or Conrad Capuzzi, Kuhn said.

Should the senior judges recuse themselves, Kuhn said, she will need a court order to ask the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to assign a visiting judge to hear the petition.

Plans to build the jail are proceeding, with the zoning hearing board on Tuesday approving a special exception to build it in an industrial zone off Mt. Braddock Road in Dunbar and North Union townships.

The board granted variances allowing the lot to be on an 18.87-acre parcel, with fewer trees than would otherwise be required and with a small section of barbed wire fencing to be visible.

The planning commission will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to consider preliminary approval of the site plan.

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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