Tally for dispute nears $50,000

BEDFORD – A county treasurer’s annual salary. A brand-new Dodge Charger police car, with all the bells and whistles. A year’s worth of supplies for the elections office.

Bedford County taxpayers could have had any of these items for the cost, as of last month, of the ongoing legal battle between the commissioners and President Judge Thomas Ling.

And while the county finance office tallied $47,873 in legal fees from November to March, a fresh round of conflict this month led the state judge hearing the case to hand the job off to a colleague.

“He’s pretty much washed his hands of it,” Commissioner Steve Howsare said of Dan Pellegrini, chief judge of the state’s Commonwealth Court. “We’re basically just starting over with another judge.”

Ling, the respondent in the civil case, agreed with Howsare – a rarity in the bitter five-month fight over court funds and employees’ salaries and bonuses.

“We’re right back at square one,” he said.

A new judge hasn’t yet been named, a Commonwealth Court employee said Thursday, but Pellegrini’s court order transferring the case indicated there’s little hope of a deal in sight.

“Whereas, it appears that the mediation session will not lead to an amicable resolution … this matter is returned to the clerk for assignment and disposition,” the April 11 order reads.

It seemed a breakthrough could have been possible before an April 2 meeting at Pellegrini’s downtown Pittsburgh office, when the state judge tried to hash out a series of negotiated proposals involving the roughly $200,000 Ling has refused to turn over to the county.

The money, which makes up the county’s DUI education fund and its court-issued supervisory fund, goes in part toward bonus pay for probation officers, who serve under the courts. The commissioners sued Ling in November, seeking a judgment that would place the funds under their control.

The April 2 meeting ended with a glimmer of hope for the commissioners, Howsare said, and Ling seemed ready to follow some of the judge’s recommendations.

But both sides quickly devolved back into conflict and Pellegrini dropped the case shortly thereafter.

That leaves a new, as-yet-unscheduled round of hearings and meetings in the coming months, all at taxpayer expense. The commissioners’ attorneys, from the Pittsburgh-based Cohen & Grigsby law office, work at a maximum $375 per hour, while Ling’s state-appointed lawyer works for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

A state court official said a tally of the state taxpayer expense is impossible, as state attorneys aren’t paid on an hourly or per-case basis.

The commissioners’ primary attorney, Clifford B. Levine, didn’t return calls seeking comment this week.

Howsare said the commissioners are unlikely to agree to any deals resembling Pellegrini’s, opening the door to a possible civil trial in the coming months.

Ling has carried on, vowing to consider some of the Commonwealth Court’s recommended financial changes despite the commissioners’ disagreement and Pellegrini’s exit.

Howsare said the commissioners receive legal bills periodically, with the most recent around $3,000. Finance Director Barry Crawford’s March tally – $47,873 – is a significant jump from the $28,000 commissioners listed in February.

At the time, Commissioners Chairman Kirt Morris said the $28,000 bill was reduced from $38,000 after Cohen & Grigsby considered the county’s financial troubles.

Greg Lau, president of the Bedford County Tea Party Patriots, said many in his group – which has advised the commissioners on financial matters – recognize the need to secure county money from Ling’s hands, even if it comes at a cost.

“I think, generally speaking, people think if the judge has money that should be turned over, then he should turn it over,” Lau said.

With a hefty sum already spent and no deal in sight, Howsare said the commissioners will see their case through to a decision.

“We think we have to take it to the end at this point,” he said. “We don’t see any other option.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.