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McKeesport councilman can't take office because of old drug charges

| Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, 7:33 a.m.
Corey Sanders
Patrick Cloonan | Tribune-Review
Corey Sanders

Corey Sanders laid out his life in paperwork for attorney Rachel Morocco, and must do the same for five people in Harrisburg to remove the felony conviction that kept him from joining McKeesport City Council on Monday.

Sanders, 45, has a drug conviction from 23 years ago that state law and the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office say bars him from taking the council seat he was elected to in November.

Sanders finished fourth and took the fourth open seat in both the primary and general elections but was not sworn in at Monday night's council meeting with his counterparts because he is awaiting a pardon from Gov. Tom Wolf.

“I have been practicing criminal law since 1992, and in all my years, I've never seen an individual come out of a felony conviction and make such strides in rehabilitating himself and his life,” said Morocco, recalling the conference table covered in Sanders' personal records, history and achievements. “If anyone's deserving of a pardon, it's him.”

Sanders is the owner of a barbershop, vice chairman of the McKeesport Downtown Business Authority, a deacon in a Pittsburgh church and is married with four children.

In 1993, he pleaded no contest before Common Pleas Judge David Cashman to felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and was sentenced to four years in state prison. Apart from traffic tickets, his record has been clean since his release in 1997.

“It's real overwhelming for me to get the support from all kinds of people, all walks of life,” Sanders said.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Francis McCarthy said in a letter to McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko that Sanders will need a full pardon from the governor to hold public office.

“It is unfortunate that this situation has arisen given the fact that Mr. Sanders has put his past indiscretions behind him and, by all accounts, lived an exemplary life since then,” McCarthy wrote. “Nonetheless, we are all called upon to uphold the Constitution and laws of Pennsylvania.”

Article 2, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution bars anyone who's been convicted of embezzling public money, bribery, perjury “or other infamous crime” from election to the state Legislature or “any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth.” McCarthy's letter also referenced a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling in Commonwealth v. Griffin that upheld that any felony could be considered an “infamous crime.”

Sanders submitted his application for a pardon in late October and was waiting to hear whether he would get a hearing with the Board of Pardons. He is going to await a pardon rather than fight for his council seat in the Court of Common Pleas, Morocco said.

“He's not getting it soon,” said New Castle minister Gary Mitchell, 59, who lost a similar battle and said he has been following Sanders' with interest.

Mitchell, who was elected to New Castle's council in 2011, filed for a pardon from then-Gov. Tom Corbett but said his case was denied during the transition to Wolf. Without a pardon, the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas blocked him from taking his seat.

“The courts will not wait, and the pardons board will not expedite,” said Mitchell, who spent 18 months in prison on a 2002 conviction for two counts of delivering crack cocaine.

Sala Udin, who served 11 years on Pittsburgh City Council, sought and received a state pardon for convictions he said were related to his civil rights work in the 1960s, but he was never barred from office.

“There were questions raised, but everyone knew I had good legal representation, and I usually just referred those questions to them,” Udin said.

He is still waiting to hear whether he'll get a pardon from President Obama for a federal conviction for carrying a gun across state lines in Kentucky in 1970, when Udin said he carried a shotgun in his car trunk for protection while registering black voters in the South.

The Sanders case caught the attention of U.S. Senate candidate and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, who put out a statement Tuesday calling on Wolf to issue a pardon, connecting Sanders' denial from office to problems faced by many nonviolent drug offenders in finding jobs or rehabilitation following their release.

J.J. Abbott, deputy press secretary to the governor, said in a tweet that the pardon process has many steps before the paperwork reaches the governor's desk.

Abbott linked to a guide to seeking a pardon published by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which noted that it can take up to six months to get a complete criminal history from the state, two years to get a visit from a state parole agent for interviews, and a year before a case gets to the five-member pardons board for a recommendation to the governor.

The Associated Press contributed. Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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