State board pardons former McKeesport councilman-elect stymied by 25-year-old drug convictions |

State board pardons former McKeesport councilman-elect stymied by 25-year-old drug convictions

Natasha Lindstrom
Tribune-Review | File
Barber and manager Corry Sanders (second from left) trims the beard of John Harper (left sitting), 65, both of McKeesport, at Kool Kutz, the barbershop Sanders runs in downtown McKeesport on Monday, August 19, 2013. “This is one of the few businesses that’s still hanging in there ‘cause he does good business,” said Harper. “People come here to socialize.” The barber on the right is Laneel Phifer, 36, cutting the hair of Terrell Brooks, 15, both of McKeesport.

A state board that reviews criminal cases agreed Wednesday to pardon Corry Sanders, the former McKeesport councilman-elect whose 26-year-old drug convictions blocked him from serving in office despite winning the 2016 municipal election.

In a 5-0 vote, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommended clemency for Sanders, 49, during a public hearing in Harrisburg.

The action next goes through an administrative process and will be sent to the desk of Gov. Tom Wolf, who has discretion to “approve or disapprove any favorable recommendation submitted by the Board,” according to the Board of Pardon’s website.

“Once the recommendation is officially in front of the governor, he will review it and make a decision,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said by email Wednesday night.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman shared the unanimous vote in favor of the pardon on social media. He chairs the five-member board, which also includes state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, psychiatrist Dr. John P. Williams, corrections expert Harris Gubernick and victim representative Marsha H. Grayson.

Fight for pardon took more than 3 years

Fetterman first called on Gov. Tom Wolf to pardon Sanders more than three years ago, when Sanders first sought clemency after winning the primary for a seat on McKeesport’s council. At the time, Fetterman was the mayor of Braddock and a U.S. Senate hopeful.

The case also caught the attention of Sala Udin, whose federal firearms conviction stemming from his civil rights work never prevented him from holding a seat on Pittsburgh City Council, and New Castle minister Gary Mitchell, who was barred from taking office in his city under similar circumstances in 2011.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office was tipped off about a pair of felony drug charges to which Sanders had pleaded no contest in 1993 and wrote a letter to McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko warning that Sanders couldn’t take his seat.

At the time, Sanders owed about $36,000 in fines and restitution, including $11,400 in “buy money” that an undercover detective paid him for nearly 110 grams of cocaine.

Sanders went to the council’s first meeting anyway and took the oath of office on Jan. 4, 2016. The reorganization meeting adjourned early because of the uproar surrounding Sanders.

“They thought I would never win; they thought I would never show up. But I’ve never run from a challenge,” Sanders told the Trib in 2016.

In February 2016, an Allegheny County judge ruled that Sanders’ election victory without a pardon was enough to violate the state constitution.

Sanders could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

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.”

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that any felony could be considered an infamous crime.

The state’s pardon process can take three to five or more years.

RELATED: McKeesport councilman-elect barred from office over drug convictions

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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