Councilman, Bedford County DA at odds

BEDFORD – An Everett Borough councilman has submitted a private criminal complaint against Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins, accusing Higgins of illegally releasing sealed information from his criminal record in a pair of press releases and in courtroom conversations.

In documents submitted last month to a Bedford district judge, Charles W. Karns, 55, said Higgins revealed convictions for animal cruelty and driving under the influence that had since been expunged from Karns’ public criminal record. Under Pennsylvania law, certain prior crimes can be removed from publicly available databases, but remain accessible to some in law enforcement.

“The defendant … provided local newspapers, news media and a website with confidential information,” the complaint reads.

Distinct from standard police criminal complaints, private complaints can be filed by civilians and carry no guarantee of charges. Because Karns accused the county’s district attorney, the document was forwarded to state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office for review.

Higgins swiftly dismissed the suggestion that he broke the law in April and May, when he issued two press releases on Karns’ case. In each, he referred to the borough councilman as a “repeat DUI offender.” In one, he described the 2007 drunken driving case that Karns had since had expunged.

Karns also accused Higgins of discussing a 1992 cruelty to animals conviction during a break in his drunken driving trial – allegedly giving nearby courtroom spectators access to the “confidential” information.

“The statute he’s referring to talks about mental health records and medical records,” Higgins said, noting that public court documents clearly referred to Karns’ 2009 drunken driving charge as a second offense. “It’s not a secret that he got a prior DUI.”

Karns lost an attempt to appeal his case to the state Supreme Court and spent five days in jail. Bedford police said he nearly hit two pedestrians while driving with a blood-alcohol level more than double the legal limit.

After the case ended, Karns said, a friend told him Higgins’ press releases and courtroom comments might be illegal. He filed the complaint in July and said he’s now waiting for a response from Kane’s office.

Dennis Fisher, a spokesman for Kane, said he could neither confirm nor deny a state investigation of Karns’ complaint, citing official policy.

“I’m waiting patiently for notification that they’ve assigned an investigator to my case,” Karns said.

The state laws Karns cites don’t explicitly mention expunged information, and one appears to cover ongoing investigations, not completed trials. The public would likely be able to determine Karns had a prior conviction regardless of the press releases, said James Pitonyak, an Erie-based attorney recommended for comment by the state Bar Association.

“It’s probably not the best thing to do, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily illegal,” Pitonyak said of Higgins’ statements.

Asked about the allegations, Higgins noted that his office frequently receives private criminal complaints, many of which are quickly declined. Citizens can use the documents to frivolously accuse elected officials of crimes, he said.

The accusations reflect a degree of personal rancor: Discussing the charges last week, Karns used sometimes-colorful language and acknowledged that a successful accusation would mean Higgins “can’t be district attorney.”

Karns said he and Higgins – both elected officials in the Republican Party – were friendly until Karns challenged his drunken driving charges and worked as a campaign manager for Higgins’ campaign opponent, Kristin Banasick.

“We used to be buddies. We used to drink together at the bar,” Karns said. “I mean, believe me, Bedford County is like the biggest soap opera ever.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.