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Judge Expected to Rule on Whether City Councilor Must Be Removed

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 04, 2016
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Corry Sanders has led "an exemplary life" since a 1993 felony conviction, an assistant district attorney told McKeesport officials earlier today, but he will be ineligible to serve on city council unless he is pardoned by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Angry residents on Monday night crowded McKeesport City Council chambers, many of them demanding that Sanders be allowed to take the seat to which he was elected in November.

But city council President Rich J. Dellapenna adjourned council's reorganization meeting, and two additional council meetings scheduled for this week have reportedly been cancelled, as McKeesport officials await the outcome of a likely hearing before an Allegheny County judge.

Sanders, a local businessman, was one of four people elected in 2015 to four vacant seats on city council, along with Tim Brown and incumbent council members Dellapenna and Keith A. Soles. But in January 1993, Sanders pleaded "no contest" to two felony drug charges, and according to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., that makes him ineligible to hold elected office in Pennsylvania.

Article II, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania constitition says that "no person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime" is eligible to hold any "office of trust or profit" in the state.

"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," assistant Allegheny County district attorney Kevin F. McCarthy wrote Monday in a letter to McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko.

Sanders, who has served on unelected boards such as the McKeesport Downtown Business Authority, frequently speaks to school and church groups about how he has turned his life around.

"Nonetheless," McCarthy wrote to Cherepko, "we are called upon to uphold the Constitution and laws of Pennsylvania."

McCarthy noted that Sanders will be eligible to serve if his 1993 conviction is pardoned by Wolf, adding that Sanders has retained Westmoreland County attorney Rachel Morocco to petition the governor for a pardon.

"As no pardon has yet been issued, Mr. Sanders continues to be constitutionally ineligible to hold office," McCarthy wrote. "I am certain and satisfied that Mr. Sanders will one day be eligible to serve the people of McKeesport, and I am sure that you, like me, look forward to that day."

Cherepko declined comment, as did McKeesport city Solicitor J. Jason Elash, who said Zappala's office is expected to ask an Allegheny County judge later this week to remove Sanders from office using a so-called "quo warranto" petition.

A 2012 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that district attorneys almost always prevail when they seek such quo warranto decisions. 

"Mr. Sanders should not be sworn into office until (the city has) received proper notification that the pardon has been granted," McCarthy wrote. "Further, if for some reason Mr. Sanders should take office as a councilman, it will be incumbent upon this office to petition for his immediate removal in the Court of Common Pleas."

The city will abide by the judge's decision, Elash said.

Many of the people in the crowd reacted angrily when Dellapenna, Soles and Brown received their oath of office from Magisterial District Judge Eugene Riazzi, but Sanders did not.

McCarthy noted that Zappala's office was acting in response to a "citizen's complaint." The identity of the citizen who filed the complaint has not been made public, but Sanders' supporters accuse his political rivals of sending the complaint to the district attorney.

Boos and shouts filled the council chambers when Elash read McCarthy's letter aloud.

"This is about people trying to hold onto their power," said city Councilwoman Fawn Walker Montgomery, who has been one of Sanders' most vocal backers, and who has frequently been at odds with Cherepko.

Sanders took the oath of office earlier today before a Pittsburgh judge, Walker Montgomery said.

Sanders' supporters demanded to know why former city Councilman Daniel Carr --- who was implicated in a video poker ring and pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges in 2014 --- was not removed from office.

In 2001, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, relying on a 2000 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, ruled in the case of Bolus v. Fisher that anyone convicted of a felony is ineligible to hold elected office.

The 2001 case --- involving a candidate for mayor of Scranton --- hinged on an 1842 state court ruling that all felony convictions are "infamous crimes" by definition.

In the earlier case, Baldwin v. Richard, the Berks County district attorney asked the courts to remove a Birdsboro borough councilman who had been twice elected to office, despite pleading guilty in 1979 to misdemeanor charges, including making terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person, stemming from a domestic dispute.

Although the Birdsboro councilman's actions were "reprehensible," the court ruled, they were not felonies, and therefore "not of such nature as to be a constitutional impediment to his holding office."

The opinion in the 2000 case was, ironically, written by then-Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala Sr., now retired --- the father of Allegheny County's current district attorney.

Originally published January 04, 2016.

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