State attorney: Sheriff Jonathan Held made staff solicit gifts, merchandise while in uniform, county car
Prosecutors with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office filed criminal charges Monday in Greensburg against Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held, accusing him of ordering his staff to campaign for him while on duty.
Held, a Republican from Hempfield, is in his second term as sheriff, re-elected to another four-year term in 2015. He was charged with one felony count of conflict of interest for directing his staff to perform campaign duties and two misdemeanor theft counts for diverting county resources and employees for campaign functions.
State investigators contend Held directed staff members to solicit gift cards and merchandise from gun shop owners starting in 2015 for his annual campaign fundraiser, "I out-shot the sheriff." Witnesses were not publicly identified in the investigation to protect them against retaliation by Held, according to court documents.
The deputies claim Held used office records to identify potential contributors to his fundraiser. Investigators contend he ordered deputies to drive county sheriff cars to collect items while in uniform and use county computers to log all of the donations.
Through defense attorney Ryan Tutera, Held denied the allegations following a brief arraignment hearing before Greensburg District Judge Chris Flanigan.
"He denies it categorically," Tutera said. "These are biased witnesses. These people have an axe to grind. They are disgruntled employees. We feel this is very politically motivated, and we look forward to fighting these charges."
Investigators said several witnesses initially denied any improprieties when first questioned but later cooperated with agents, including one listed as a supervisor who was confronted with a video from a gun store that showed that employee arrive in a county car in full uniform soliciting an item from a store manager.
Held, who had been in sheriff's uniform earlier on Monday, wore civilian clothes when he turned himself in and was arraigned on the three charges.
Flanigan said the most serious offense, the felony conflict of interest count, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Held was released from custody on his on recognizance and will appear before Flanigan for a preliminary hearing on March 15.
In a statement released late Monday afternoon, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said: "Law enforcement officers are sworn to protect and serve our communities — not seek contributions for their political campaign while they're on duty. That is theft of tax dollars and the community's right to public safety. No one is above the law. I'll pursue this kind of public corruption wherever I find it across the commonwealth."
Criminal charges being filed now in a Greensburg against Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held. Offenses expected to involve campaign improprieties.— Rich Cholodofsky (@RichCholodofsky) February 26, 2018
Held, out of uniform and accompanied by two lawyers, appeared at DJ office to turn himself in.— Rich Cholodofsky (@RichCholodofsky) February 26, 2018
Held, 43, has been under investigation since summer 2016 after six deputies claimed that he required staff members to do political work for him while on duty. The complaint initially was made to District Attorney John Peck, who referred the case to the attorney general's office.
Over the last two years, Held repeatedly has denied the claims, calling them politically motivated. He told the Tribune-Review in March 2017 that he was unaware of the investigation.
Held was paid $67,504 in 2017. He is set to earn $68,051 in 2018.
Tutera said Held will not resign.
"He is still the sheriff and he'll continue to be the sheriff until the people of this county vote him out," Tutera said.
Last week, county commissioners hired two outside law firms to investigate claims made against the sheriff's office and the department's second in command.
A Pittsburgh firm will probe allegations of civil rights violations raised this month by job applicants seeking positions in the sheriff's office.
A second firm, based in Harrisburg with an office in Pittsburgh, will investigate harassment allegations brought against an assistant county solicitor during questioning in the original civil rights complaint.
Both firms will be paid on an hourly rate ranging from $105 to $195. There is no cap on spending, commissioners said.
Commissioner Ted Kopas said the investigations "could be a tremendous expense."
Earlier in the month, commissioners launched an investigation into the sheriff's office after receiving a series of complaints that job applicants were discriminated against because of their race. The allegations focused on Held and his chief deputy, Patricia Fritz.
Commissioners said county officials received complaints from a lawyer representing two African-American job applicants who claimed they were denied positions in the sheriff's office.
Held has been a controversial figure for several years, clashing repeatedly with the commissioners over spending and personnel issues.
Since taking office in 2012, he has been the target of more than a half dozen lawsuits for political retaliation and age and gender discrimination filed by former and current staffers. Commissioners over the last year settled three of the cases, including one for $2,500 in November.
That same month, Held removed the department's drug-sniffing dog, Diesel, from the care of Deputy Sheriff Jason Grecco and assigned the dog to another deputy, claiming it had become a family pet rather than a working police dog. Grecco filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit in December, derailing a possible settlement to end the dispute, claiming that Held made the move in retaliation for Grecco speaking with investigators from the attorney general's office.
Diesel has since been transferred to the county's park police department.
Also in November, the county commissioners urged the state Senate to consider impeaching Held, though the board did not make a formal request for lawmakers to consider a move.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.