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Trial date again eludes theft case against former Allegheny County councilman

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 12:20 p.m.

Five years since a grand jury accused attorney Charles McCullough of taking money from an elderly woman's estate, the former Allegheny County councilman has yet to stand trial.

The case has been delayed at least eight times since September 2009, for various reasons, and appeals tacked on two more years of delays.

At a status conference on Wednesday, Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen stepped down from the case because scheduling conflicts would go beyond his November retirement, causing another delay.

The case goes to the court's administrative judge for reassignment, and it could be a month before a trial date is set.

Yet, even though the case has languished longer than most criminal cases, at least one legal expert said there's little to suggest any intentional foot-dragging.

“This is kind of a series of things ... not all of which are related,” said Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz. “Some of them are happenstance. Each part was not outrageous by itself, and yet it adds up to five years, which is too long for a criminal case.”

Authorities charged McCullough, 59, of Upper St. Clair in June 2009 with bilking $200,000 from the $14.7 million estate of widow Shirley Jordan, who died in 2010 at 93. Prosecutors accused him of trying to further his political career while acting as trustee of her estate in 2006 and 2007.

His lawyer, Jon Pushinsky, said his client is innocent. He has argued that everything McCullough did with Jordan's estate was screened and approved by an Orphans' Court judge.

Reached by phone, McCullough declined to comment, as did a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.

A Republican, McCullough was county solicitor for a year before winning election to County Council in 2007, a seat he held until 2011.

The grand jury said McCullough illegally paid himself and his sister, Kathleen McCullough, 51, and donated money to Republican election campaigns and a charity run by his wife, Patricia A. McCullough.

Kathleen McCullough declined to comment when reached by phone. Her lawyer could not be reached.

Patricia McCullough, elected as a Commonwealth Court judge in 2009, was caught up in the scandal surrounding her husband but not charged.

Appointed as a Common Pleas judge in 2005 by Gov. Ed Rendell to fill a vacancy, she lost an election bid. In March 2006, she landed a job as executive director of Catholic Charities. Her fundraising activity caught the attention of the grand jury because a $10,000 check came from Jordan's trust — just 10 minutes before McCullough had to announce at the black-tie Bishop's Annual Dinner whether the agency met its goal.

Nine months later, she resigned, saying she wanted to spend time with her family.

Kathleen McCullough, hired to be Jordan's companion, is accused of using her position to earn $4,575. She made $60 an hour for a job that typically would pay $8 to $10 an hour, according to court records.

Among the reasons for delays in the case were a dispute between McCullough and his former attorney, Patrick Thomassey, in 2011, and the death of Pushinsky's father in 2012.

An appeal to the state Superior Court and a subsequent request that the state Supreme Court review the case added two years. Superior Court denied his appeal in May; the Supreme Court declined to review that decision on July 2.

Most criminal cases take about two years for resolution, Ledewitz said. He thinks the McCulloughs' case is “complex and unusual.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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