Westmoreland County judges won't preside over criminal case against Sheriff Jonathan Held
A judge from outside Westmoreland County will oversee the criminal case against Sheriff Jonathan Held.
Common Pleas President Judge Rita Hathaway signed a court order this week recusing all of the county's judges from the case, citing Held's position as a county elected official as the reason.
Held, 43, of Hempfield was charged last week with three public corruption offenses alleging he required his taxpayer-paid staff to perform political functions for his re-election efforts.
Court Administrator Amy DeMatt said Wednesday that she asked the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to assign a judge from another county to the case. That appointment is pending.
Held's attorney, Ryan Tutera, commended Hathaway's motion.
“Judge Hathaway's decision to recuse the entire bench in Westmoreland County is to be applauded,” Tutera wrote via email, “not only because she got out in front of this issue and spared the taxpayers needless litigation, but also, her decision affords both sides fairness from any potential biases.”
Hathaway's recusal order does not impact next week's preliminary hearing. It will be presided over by Greensburg District Judge Chris Flanigan, DeMatt said.
At that hearing, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. March 15, prosecutors are expected to present testimony from witnesses not identified in initial court documents filed against Held. State agents said fear of retribution by the sheriff prompted them to keep witness identities confidential.
Agents with the Attorney General's office charged Held with two misdemeanor counts of theft and one felony offense of conflict of interest. Agents contend Held ordered sheriff department staffers and deputies to solicit campaign donations and used county equipment such as cars and computers to perform those duties and to coordinate political activity.
Witnesses told investigators that Held had staffers utilize a federal firearms database to identify potential contributors for the sheriff's annual campaign fundraiser that involved target shooting challenges.
Held denies the allegations, and his attorney contends the charges stem from political adversaries seeking to discredit the two-term Republican sheriff.
According to posts on Facebook, Held's supporters plan to hold a rally for the sheriff outside Flanigan's office before next week's preliminary hearing.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.