The state Supreme Court’s disciplinary counsel recently slapped outgoing state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola with professional misconduct charges involving his handling of various estate cases as a private attorney.
The Dauphin County Republican acted dishonestly in misrepresenting three estates, including that of the late Patriot-News film critic Sharon Johnson, according to charges filed in June with the Supreme Court Disciplinary Board. Piccola has denied all 14 charges.
But criticism has also been aimed at Dauphin County President Judge Todd Hoover for presiding over the Johnson estate case last year despite Piccola’s involvement with Hoover’s judicial campaign. The Susquehanna Township Republican was chairman of Hoover’s campaign committee when he ran for judge in 1993, according to a campaign finance report acquired by The Patriot-News.
Neither Piccola, who will retire at the end of the year after 35 years in office, nor Hoover returned interview requests for this story.
Piccola’s attorney Bob Davis said no conflict of interest existed between Hoover and Piccola and that his client’s chairman position on Hoover’s campaign committee doesn’t indicate unethical activity.
Good government and court reform groups disagree, saying Hoover, whose campaign committee made multiple campaign contributions to Piccola’s re-election committee in 1993, should have recused himself from the Johnson case, or at least informed the parties of the case about the relationship between Piccola and himself.
“I think if somebody in the position of making a judgment that will effect monetary compensation or whether sanctions are going to be imposed on someone with whom they have that close of a relationship, they either should recuse themselves and say ‘I’m not going to put myself in that position’,’’ said attorney Shire Goodman, deputy executive director of Philadelphia-based court reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.
“Because even though that person might believe they could act fairly, they might want to recuse themselves anyway because of the appearance it creates,” Goodman said.
Davis said the fact that Hoover presided over the Johnson estate case is “irrelevant.”
“Lawyers are always involved in judicial elections,’’ Davis said. “They are supposed to be involved because they are charged with the responsibility of creating a fair justice system, including competent judges”
Hoover’s ruling in the Johnson estate case allowed her heirs to keep the entire $200,000 estate and Piccola and the “heir hunting” firm he represented walked away with nothing.
But Hoover dismissed the conflict-of-interest claims filed against Piccola by the attorney for Johnson estate. It’s those claims that lie at the heart of the disciplinary counsel’s complaint.
The disciplinary counsel’s civil charges against Piccola revolve around his legal representation of Utah-based Kemp & Associates, which searches courthouse estate filings to connect potential beneficiaries with inheritances.
Kemp & Associates keeps a third of the inheritances they retrieve for beneficiaries and Piccola charges the firm a 5 percent legal contingency fee based on the amount of money the group gets for its clients, according to court documents.
The disciplinary counsel filed conflict-of-interest charges against Piccola mainly due to his representing estate beneficiaries and Kemp & Associates simultaneously, according to the charges.
According to the charges, “a lawyer shall not accept compensation for representing a client from one other than the client unless: the client gives informed consent; there is no interference with the lawyer’s independence of professional judgment or with the client-lawyer relationship and information relating to representation of a client is protected.”
Additionally, the charges state that “it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
A hearing on the charges is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 24. If the disciplinary board rules against Piccola, he could have his law license suspended or be disbarred, or face other lesser punishments.
The lawyer for the executor of Johnson’s estate, Shaun O’Toole, said that neither Hoover nor Piccola informed him of Piccola’s role on the judge’s election committee.
Still, O’Toole said he was satisfied with Hoover’s ruling because even though the conflict-of-interest charges were dropped, Johnson’s heirs were able to keep the entire estate.
Conflicts of interest involving judges are all too common in the commonwealth, said Tim Potts, executive director of local good government organization Democracy Rising.
For example, two-thirds of those who try cases before the state Supreme Court have given money to Supreme Court justices, Potts said.
“This is a way of life in which judges are presented conflicts of interest and it doesn’t seem to bother them enough to say, ‘I ought to recuse myself from this case.’ This is one of the reasons we found a significant amount of Pennsylvania voters think we may be ready to do public financing of judicial elections,” Potts said.
Joe Massa Jr., chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania, which can file charges and take action against judges, would not comment on the potential conflict of interest that existed between Hoover and Piccola.
Goodman said that Piccola and Hoover’s relationship should have raised red flags during the Johnson estate case. But in Pennsylvania, judges are not required to recuse themselves from cases, she said.
“The judge could have raised the issue. National efforts have taken place to change recusal rules. In Pennsylvania, they give a lot of discretion to the judges. This happens a lot,” Goodman said. “It’s really up to the judge. You can make a motion and you can appeal, but it’s within the discretion of the judge.”
Another conflict-of-interest issue surfaced in a case involving Piccola and Hoover after attorneys for a Dauphin County church/cemetery and an estate associated with the church asked Hoover to recuse Piccola from court proceedings, according to court records.
Hoover appointed Piccola as a special master, or overseer, of the case that also involved Mid Penn Bank and the executor of the estate in question, according to court documents.
Attorneys informed Hoover in 2000 about a potential conflict of interest that might have existed between the bank and Piccola, according to court papers.
Hoover responded to the recusal request in a letter dated July 3, 2000.
“I have since spoken with the special master and indicated I don’t believe he has a conflict of interest,” Hoover said in the letter. “[Piccola] does not feel he has a conflict as well. Before this case was assigned to the special master, I indicated to him that I believed he would know individuals on both sides of this case. It’s my conclusion after discussions with counsel and with the special master that there is no conflict.”
The matter was appealed with the state Supreme Court in 2002, with the appelants questioning Piccola’s legal ability to serve as a lawmaker and quasi-judicial officer simultaneously. The appeal was dismissed.
Judge Todd Hoover gets heat for his role in Sen. Jeffrey Piccola’s estate case
August 15, 2012