Westmoreland sheriff faces crowded field in GOP primary election
As public corruption charges await a potential retrial, two-term Republican incumbent Westmoreland County Sheriff Jonathan Held insists he’s the best-suited candidate to head the department that has been besieged with current and former staffers charged with crimes, a dozen lawsuits that alleged mismanagement and operational squabbles with county leaders.
“I should be re-hired by the people for the simple fact that we have run the office efficiently. Under my administration, we have come under budget all seven years, saving the taxpayers over $2 million. We have also had nine clean audits, to the penny, in these last seven years,” Held said.
Held, 45, of Hempfield, is being challenged by three Republicans, including two deputies who work in the sheriff’s department, and a retired Greensburg police officer in the May 21 primary. James Albert, 69, of New Alexandria, a retired district judge in Greensburg, is unopposed in the Democratic primary.
The sheriff’s department operates with a staff of 55 full-time and 19 part-time deputies and a $4.3 million budget. Duties include providing courtroom security, prisoner transfers, warrant service and the sale of foreclosed properties.
Steve Felder, 55, of Penn Township, president of the union that represents deputy sheriffs, and Sam Pilato, 56, of Hempfield, a nine-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, said their inside knowledge of operations will enable them to repair damage they said has been left by Held’s administration. Eugene Zulisky, 52, of Greensburg, who served as a city police officer for 28 years before retiring in 2015, said an outsider is needed to fix the department.
“The only way the sheriff’s department is moving forward is with a fresh new start. If one of (the deputies) get it, you’ll still have tension. It’s no good for anybody,” Zulisky said.
He said he wants to improve the sheriff’s relationship with local police departments. Held was dismissed as a member of the county’s Chiefs of Police Association in 2014.
“The sheriff’s department and police departments in Westmoreland County don’t work well together, and taxpayers don’t get the benefit from that,” Zulisky said.
Issues in the sheriff’s department date to 2012, shortly after Held took office and a former deputy sued the county claiming he was fired for age discrimination. Over the next seven years, another 11 lawsuits were filed against the county, Held and the sheriff’s department that alleged racial and gender discrimination as well as allegations that military reservists were being passed over for promotions.
County commissioners have paid more than $350,000 to settle the lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Held’s first chief deputy resigned during his first-term in office, citing issues with how the department was operated. Held’s second chief deputy was fired last year after she was convicted of summary harassment for a physical altercation she had with Felder. The department’s third in command was also fired after he was charged last year with harassing a woman during a sheriff’s training course in State College.
Held also is awaiting a retrial on conflict of interest and theft charges filed by the state’s Attorney General’s Office, which alleges the sheriff directed deputies and other on-duty staffers to perform campaign chores for his 2015 re-election bid. A mistrial was declared in December after jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict.
It’s those issues that require a change in office leadership, Pilato said.
“He put the wrong people in the wrong positions and took a lot of bad advice. I don’t think he can make the needed changes or doesn’t want to,” Pilato said.
Pilato serves as a courtroom deputy. He said the sheriff’s department suffers from bad morale and issues regarding safety and training deficiencies.
“I don’t believe an outside person can make changes effectively unless you know what the problems are. This won’t be easy, and it might be a two-year process to get things on the right track,” Pilato said.
Felder, a 25-year-department veteran who holds the rank of sergeant, said his history in the sheriff’s office makes him the most qualified to serve as its top official.
“I know how to fix it. The leadership needs to trickle down from there. We need new software. And I know who can do the job and who can’t,” Felder said.
Felder has twice run unsuccessfully for sheriff, first as a Democrat and again four years ago against Held in the Republican primary.
“I want to make the county better,” he said.
Held has continually denied the charges against him, saying they were raised by disgruntled staffers and political opponents. He has also disputed the various allegations in the lawsuits filed against his department.
“The commissioners decided to settle every one of the lawsuits before the discovery phase, and before anyone went under oath in each of the cases,” Held wrote in an email. “I pushed to fight each one of them, and I was repeatedly told that the commissioners control the purse strings.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .