Judge overturns harassment conviction that got Westmoreland chief deputy sheriff fired
A Westmoreland County judge on Thursday overturned the conviction of the sheriff department’s former chief deputy who was fired last year after being found guilty of harassment against a union official.
Following the continuation of last month’s appeal hearing, Patricia Fritz was found not guilty of the summary offense. She was accused of poking the president of the union that represents deputy sheriff’s following a disciplinary hearing last summer at the courthouse.
Fritz, 64, of Mt. Pleasant, through her defense lawyer, said she will now likely file a lawsuit seeking to be reinstated to her job as the second-highest ranking member of the sheriff’s office.
“The primary reason she was fired is because of this allegation,” said attorney Dan Beisler. “You’ll be seeing a civil action seeking her reinstatement.”
Fritz was fired in October, shortly after a district judge found her guilty of the harassment charge. At that time, Sheriff Jonathan Held said the decision to remove her came from the county’s human resources office.
Held said Thursday he would investigate the possibility of returning Fritz to the sheriff’s office but said he won’t re-install her as the chief deputy.
“That job has been filled,” Held said. “I will consult with the department of human resources and the solicitor’s office. I can’t say no, and I can’t say yes.”
Cpl. Steve Felder and another deputy testified last month that Fritz pushed him in the chest during a grievance hearing Aug. 7, 2018, that became heated.
Senior Common Pleas Court Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr. issued the not guilty verdict Thursday after hearing from Held, his new chief deputy Denise Appleby, and Fritz, who all testified they were in the room during the incident and that there was no physical contact with with Felder.
The incident resulted in two-week paid suspensions for both Fritz and Felder.
County detectives investigated Felder’s complaint and the summary harassment charge against Fritz was filed in August. She was found guilty by Greensburg District Judge Chris Flanigan in October and fined $300.
Fritz did not testify at the October hearing.
On Thursday, a sobbing Fritz said Felder had mistreated her since she was promoted in 2014 to chief deputy and their relationship continued to deteriorate over the next few years. Felder was acting as a union representative during last year’s grievance hearing when Fritz said he became enraged when she sought to discuss a personnel policy about sick leave recently instituted in the sheriff’s department.
“He got up and started screaming. I said, ‘please sit down and let’s discuss it,’” Fritz testified.
Voices were raised and Felder yanked open a door and stormed from the room, she said.
“I was two feet away from him at all times. I never touched him. I wouldn’t touch him,” Fritz testified.
Fritz, prior to her firing, had been a lightning rod for controversy in the sheriff’s office, which has been beset with discrimination lawsuits, political squabbles, suspensions and an ongoing criminal case filed against Held over allegations that he improperly used department staffers for political purposes.
Held has denied the charges and a state appeals court is now considering a defense motion to dismiss the case. Held maintains a mistrial declared after a jury in December failed to reach a verdict in his case should result the prosecution against him being terminated.
Meanwhile, Held continues to seek a third term in office this November.
Felder was one of three unsuccessful challengers who sought to unseat Held in last May’s Republican primary for sheriff. Held will face Democrat James Albert, a former district judge in Greensburg, in this fall.
Fritz ran for county commissioner as a Republican in May. She finished fifth among six GOP candidates.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .