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Sewer-bill letter raises stink in Smithton

| Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010

A small-town political feud spilled into about 400 taxpayer-funded sewer bills and caught the attention of Westmoreland County criminal investigators, the former mayor of Smithton said this week.

Robert L. Prah Jr., 27, accused six incumbents in the November borough council election of using the monthly sewer bill to send a one-page campaign letter to people three days before they went to the polls.

"They actually had a government entity backing the campaigns of the people on the bottom who signed. That's not right," Prah said. "All they had to do is buy their own paper, go to Staples, print it up and buy their own stamps and send the letter, and it would have been OK."

The letter is signed by six of seven council members listed at the bottom. One of the signers, Carl T. Cathers, 60, the council's former vice president, defended the letter, which he said was a response to an anti-incumbent letter Prah circulated days earlier.

"It wasn't telling anybody to vote for anyone. It was more of an 'attaboy' letter than anything else. It wasn't really a political letter. It was more of an informative letter," said Cathers, who spent 11 years on council.

Prah, a second lieutenant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who served in Iraq, said he gave the letter and envelope marked "Smithton Borough Municipal Authority" to the district attorney's office.

He said county Detective Frank Galilei interviewed him about the letter a week later and said he was investigating the matter. Galilei did not return calls, and the prosecutor's office declined to comment.

Prah and five of the council members lost to write-in candidates. The top ballot-getter received 75 votes.

Larry Heltebran, the only person who signed the letter and retained his council seat, did not return a call seeking comment. Fred Foster, 56, a former Smithton council member who signed the letter, lost re-election but was appointed this week to fill a vacancy.

Foster said the borough often uses the sewer bill mailer to send notices about munity events such as "light-up night." He said the flap over the mailing comes from "a lot of sour grapes" over the election results.

Prah's initial letter, which he provided to the Tribune-Review, criticized the council for paying the part-time borough secretary, who is Cathers' wife, Michele, $25 an hour; failing to raise the pay of the borough's five-member police force; and rejecting an offer to install a free statue in town of actress Shirley Jones, best known as the mom in "The Partridge Family."

Jones was born in Charleroi but grew up in Smithton.

Michele Cathers recently resigned, Foster said.

Council's response said its members are dedicated volunteers who "donate unpaid time" to improve Smithton and "save thousands of dollars" each year.

"Please keep in mind that your vote is valued and much needed during this year's borough elections. In closing, we would like to remind you that the borough elections will be held on November 3rd 2009 at the Smithton Borough Building," the letter states.

The letter says borough officials "feel that there is no 'I' in team or neighborhood for that fact. They work together for the common goal of their community and that is success!"

Carl Cathers said enclosing the letter in sewer bills was the easiest way to reach almost everyone in town.

"We served the public. We busted our butts. We were volunteers," he said. "In 30 years, this was the nastiest election that has ever happened in this town."

He said the borough's part-time solicitor, Greensburg lawyer Gary Falatovich, suggested sending the letter.

In a phone interview, Falatovich denied suggesting it and condemned the decision to send the letter with the sewer bills.

"If anybody would have asked me if it was appropriate to send out a political letter endorsing a candidate along with a sewer bill, I would have told them that that was inappropriate," Falatovich said.

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