Mercer County DA takes stand to defend himself from obstruction charges
Mercer County District Attorney Miles K. Karson has been practicing law in this western Pennsylvania county for more than four decades.
In that time, he’s prosecuted and defended clients in a wide variety of matters.
On Wednesday morning, Karson, a 73-year-old McKeesport native who lives in Sharon, was sworn under oath and took the stand in his own defense in a case being prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s Office. The case alleges Karson used his position to influence the outcome of criminal proceedings against a 41-year-old woman with whom prosecutors and a grand jury allege he was romantically involved.
Karson is facing misdemeanor charges of obstruction, official oppression and hindering apprehension or prosecution in the case, which is being heard by Senior Judge H. William White of neighboring Venango County.
Prosecutors laid out their case for a week, largely expanding upon the contents of a grand jury presentment that resulted in the charges against Karson in October 2017.
Included has been testimony from two Mercer County district judges, a police chief and police officers who detailed requests Karson is said to have made to ask for leniency on the woman’s behalf.
Until Wednesday, aside from a blanket denial of wrongdoing, Karson had been silent on the accusations made against him and didn’t explain his involvement with Tonya Bulboff, the former Greenville resident who ultimately became someone Karson was determined to rehabilitate.
“Tonya became my case. I was going to fix Tonya. I was going to make her better,” Karson explained.
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, Karson, who has long been known for his dapper dress and eloquent courtroom demeanor, broke down in tears at one point Wednesday after summarizing his distinguished military service in Vietnam, career as a lawyer and his two-decade battle with metastatic prostate cancer that’s left him impotent, incontinent and “chemically castrated” with extremely low levels of testosterone.
Karson lost his composure when his defense lawyer, Al Lindsay of Butler, started asking about Bulboff, a former Mercer County resident.
“Part of the problem of not having testosterone is sometimes you turn into a blubbering fool,” Karson explained to the jury.
When Karson made what ended up being a successful run for district attorney in 2015, Bulboff became a volunteer on his campaign — Karson had known her family for years. She primarily managed his social media posts, and he’d meet with her from time to time at a restaurant or on the front porch of her parents’ home in Greenville, he said.
Bulboff’s mother was dying of advanced lung cancer, and her father suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Both have since died.
Karson knew Bulboff had battled drug addiction and crimes related to it about 15 years ago.
When Karson let her work on his campaign, it appeared as if Bulboff was starting to overcome her problems.
She’d gone to college, and “she was a different person,” he said. “She had totally rehabilitated herself.”
But Karson later became aware of a darker side after she relapsed and started using heroin again, he said.
He admits making inquiries in several criminal cases against Bulboff, asking two district judges and a police chief about her bail status — Karson disputes implicitly asking for unsecured bond, meaning she wouldn’t be jailed awaiting the resolution of the case.
In those cases, she ended up with the unsecured bonds.
Karson also detailed the events of an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning in October 2016 when Bulboff arrived at his home and they argued to the point that police showed up, responding to a domestic dispute.
Police spoke to Bulboff and, when Karson arrived at the door, they recognized him and he said: “Everything’s fine, fellas,” Karson testified.
That was the first time he’d encountered Bulboff in the throes of addiction.
Over Thanksgiving that year, Karson, who is separated from his wife, decided to visit the Outer Banks of North Carolina to get away from it all.
Instead, he spent much of a day talking to Bulboff on the phone, trying to talk her out of coming to visit him there, and he ultimately left in such a rush that he forgot the experimental drug he injects himself with daily to treat his cancer.
The trip ended in a hospital room near Beckley Springs, W.Va., where Bulboff was taken after she was hurt in a car crash while pursuing Karson’s vehicle, he said.
During the Christmas holiday in 2016, the pair also made a trip — this time to Florida — and Karson thought Bulboff, who was on probation at the time, was allowed to make the trip.
She wasn’t, and she concocted a story that her father’s condition had worsened, and they returned after spending about 24 hours in Florida so Bulboff could make contact with her probation officer.
Prosecutors’ cross-examination of Karson will continue Thursday, and the case is expected to be in the jury’s hands later in the day, according to White.
Karson remains the top law enforcement official in this county with a population of about 116,000 that’s about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-487-7208, [email protected] or via Twitter @TribDavidson.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .