Westmoreland sheriff-elect promises changes when he takes office
A shake-up is coming to the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office, but no one will lose their job in the process, the new sheriff-elect said a day after defeating the two-term Republican incumbent.
Voters selected James Albert, 69, a Democrat from New Alexandria, over Jonathan Held to take over the office that in recent years was marred by lawsuits, criminal charges and personnel controversies.
“There will be changes, without a doubt,” Albert said, who begins a four-year term in January after his 5,500-vote victory on Tuesday. He received 53% of the vote to Held’s 47%, according to unofficial election results.
Albert retired in 2016 after serving for nearly three decades as a district judge in Greensburg. He previously worked as a city police officer and county detective after starting his career as a county deputy sheriff.
He campaigned on an agenda to restore the public’s trust in the sheriff’s department, which he said had become an “embarrassment” under Held’s leadership.
Changes, he said, could include a shift in the department’s administration, job transfers and new duty assignments.
“It’s not my intention for anyone to lose their job. There may be demotions and some people might be advanced, but everyone that is there now, as far as I am concerned, will have a job,” Albert said. “I want to bring in some new personnel, and I’ve had some discussions with people who have a law enforcement background and a management background.”
The sheriff’s department, which has a $4.3 million annual operating budget, employs about 70 full-time and part-time deputies as well as some civilian office staffers. It is responsible for courtroom security, transfer of inmates, warrant service and the sale of foreclosed upon property.
Held, 45, of Hempfield, took office in 2012 and almost immediately came into conflict with the county’s board of commissioners over his financial oversight of the department and hiring practices. Held and the sheriff’s office were the subject of more than a dozen lawsuits, many alleging various forms of discrimination. County commissioners settled most of the pending lawsuits at a cost of about $500,000, a figure that included payouts and legal fees.
Held’s top two administrators were charged with crimes, including one case that still is pending against a now former captain accused of harassing a woman at a sheriff’s training academy in State College. Held’s chief deputy, since fired, was charged with a summary harassment offense for her alleged role in a courthouse scuffle with the president of the union that represents deputy sheriffs. Her conviction in that case was eventually overturned on appeal.
Held was charged by the state Attorney General’s Office with public corruption offenses alleging he directed on-duty sheriff’s department staffers to perform chores for his 2015 re-election bid. That case remains pending after a mistrial was declared when a Westmoreland County jury last year failed to reach a verdict in the case.
Held is appealing a lower court decision that rejected his bid to have the case dismissed.
“Those are false allegations, which will be proven (false) after (Albert) takes office,” Held said Tuesday night.
The attorney general’s office did not respond as to whether it plans to continue to prosecute Held once he leaves office.
Albert said Wednesday he wants to have an audit of the department’s finances and operations completed before he takes office.
“I don’t know if it should be an outside agency that does it or who would pay for it, but I would really like to have everything audited and then ready to go when I get into office. Then, I can have a new direction. The sheriff’s department needs a new direction and that will improve morale,” Albert said.
He also wants the sheriff’s office to regain the respect of the county’s law enforcement community. The county’s chiefs of police association in 2014 ejected Held from its organization in response to the sheriff’s announced intention to have deputies assigned to general patrol duties as part of warrant service operations.
“The department’s relationships with the local police departments, in time, will be made a lot better,” Albert said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .