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Steve Toprani a sudden celebrity

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Friday, Nov. 23, 2007
 

When FBI agents and state police searched the Washington County District Attorney's Office this week, Republican Steve Toprani said it only confirmed what he preached to voters all year long.

Toprani, the prosecuting attorney-elect, ran a campaign to clean up the office held by John C. Pettit for 24 years, and voters responded by giving Toprani two-thirds of the vote.

"We'll still hold true to the cause that the voters elected us to do - make change in Washington County," said Toprani, 28. "We'll get rid of this looming cloud."

Toprani said he has not talked with Pettit in the two weeks since the election. Investigators did not warn him before searching the District Attorney's office Tuesday and Wednesday.

Federal agents and state police seized a safe and boxes of documents on Tuesday.

County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns said investigators returned Wednesday, possibly to search two other safes: one is about 8-feet tall and built into the courthouse wall and the other is in a drug task force office.

Pettit, 72, of Canton, could not be reached for comment. A federal grand jury is expected to hear testimony on the investigation in January, according to court documents and a county official.

Already, the election has turned Toprani into an instant celebrity, unable to walk city streets without being stopped by well-wishers.

"Most people were shocked by the outcome" of the election, said Frank Arcuri, 48, a Washington defense attorney and president of the county Bar Association. "They didn't think it would be such an overwhelming victory."

Although he was just a toddler when Pettit first came into office, Toprani proved himself during the campaign, said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.

"Campaigns are serious tests of candidates, and he was tested," DiSarro said. "He was able to deal with an extremely difficult situation."

Mostly a civil trial attorney since graduating from Duquesne University law school in 2004, Toprani pledged to reorganize the office, upgrade its technology and prosecute drug crimes.

"Drugs are prevalent in our county," Toprani said this week. "Everywhere you go, it's a resounding theme: 'What can you do about the drug problem?' "

Toprani will have to decide what kind of district attorney he wants to be - a hands-on prosecutor or an office administrator, DiSarro said.

"He's going from a relatively standard, routine-type of job to one that requires total commitment," DiSarro said.

When Toprani first started campaigning last winter, it was hard to get people to take his candidacy seriously, his campaign manager, Steven Fischer, 32, said.

But by the time the Washington County Fair rolled around last summer, the challenge gained traction and accelerated in the fall. Internal polling numbers in early October showed Toprani with a 5-point lead, Fischer said.

"I've never seen momentum happen for a political candidate like it did for Steve," he said. "When we started, it was hard to get an audience."

A self-described "political animal," Toprani said he believed he always had a shot at winning. He described his campaign as "hand-to-hand" as he knocked on doors and built up support.

"We heard the political winds out there and knew John Pettit was in trouble, to say the least," Toprani said from his transition office, a windowless room with one computer, inside the county office complex.

Toprani and his wife live in Monongahela, near where his grandparents settled after coming to America from Italy. Toprani said his wife, Jennifer, a Kentucky native, has signed onto the commitments of public life.

The couple met while they were on separate family vacations in France. The youngest people on a day trip to Normandy, they hit it off and stayed in touch after returning home. They married two years ago.

The biggest adjustment, for now, Toprani said, is that they can't go out without being recognized.

"There's no corner of the county where we can walk in anonymously," he said, adding that "it's really been a rush" since election day.

Walking down Washington's Main Street on a recent afternoon, Toprani wandered about a half-block from the courthouse before someone pulled him into a diner to meet a group of child advocates. On the street, a stranger stopped to offer congratulations.

When Toprani and his wife ventured out to a small, out-of-the-way restaurant for a quiet evening, diners called out his name when he walked through the door. Police officers along the route the Veterans Day parade in Monongahela saluted Toprani as he rode past.

Even his parents were deluged with well-wishers. They had 29 messages on their phone election night.

"This has been such a great experience," his mother, Darla Toprani, wrote in an e-mail, "and I know none of our lives are going to be the same again."

Toprani said he does not know whether he will be the district attorney for a quarter-century like his predecessor. He compared holding public office to being invited to someone's house to watch football. If you go to the friend's house every Sunday, he said, after a while you start to feel some ownership.

The decision, ultimately, rests with the voters who handed him an upset victory.

"By the same stroke, the voters can take me out of office," Toprani said.

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