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Federal judge deals legal setback to ex-PA Cyber Charter School CEO Trombetta

| Tuesday, July 21, 2015, 11:28 a.m.
Nick Trombetta (right), founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, leaves U.S. District Court, Downtown, with his attorney J. Alan Johnson in 2013.
Dave Conti | Tribune-Review
Nick Trombetta (right), founder of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, leaves U.S. District Court, Downtown, with his attorney J. Alan Johnson in 2013.

Former Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School CEO Nick Trombetta can make another attempt to prove that federal agents improperly recorded conversations he had with an attorney who did legal work for the school, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

But the cyber school pioneer failed to persuade a judge to throw out most of the evidence in his criminal case because the government improperly taped conversations he had with three other attorneys.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti ruled that Trombetta didn't have a personal attorney-client relationship with those three, although there was marginal evidence that the fourth attorney, Timothy Barry, did private legal work for Trombetta.

Trombetta didn't pay Barry for private legal work, but Barry testified that he gave Trombetta legal advice, the judge ruled.

The school Trombetta founded in Midland in Beaver County, announced Tuesday that it is cutting 43 of its 700 full- and part-time positions because enrollment dropped from 11,500 students to 10,000 students in the past two years. CEO Michael Conti said the quality of PA Cyber's curriculum and student services would not change.

Trombetta of East Liverpool, Ohio, retired in 2012. A federal grand jury in 2013 indicted him on 11 counts of mail fraud, bribery, tax conspiracy and filing false tax returns. Using his control of PA Cyber and several other companies, Trombetta siphoned off at least $1 million in tax dollars paid to the online school, prosecutors say.

Trombetta would have to prove the government deliberately intruded into his discussing his legal options with Barry, and that its conduct was “egregious, outrageous, shocking and intolerable,” Conti said in a 73-page opinion.

The government stopped recording in at least some of the cases when Barry and Trombetta began discussing private legal matters.

“The evidence about these communications does not support defendant's claim of governmental misconduct, but, instead, reflects that the government was exercising reasonable caution, the judge said.

Adam Hoffinger, one of Trombetta's defense attorneys, and U.S. Attorney David Hickton declined comment.

The attorneys who were taped do not include Trombetta's defense team.

A significant part of the government's case consists of recorded conversations of Trombetta talking with school officials and with company officials and lawyers for various entities connected to PA Cyber.

He has claimed that four attorneys worked for him personally and the government improperly taped attorney-client conversations. The government contends that none of the attorneys worked for Trombetta personally and all of its recordings are legal.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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