BEDFORD - After months of sabre rattling, the Bedford County commissioners Friday took their dispute with President Judge Thomas Ling to its highest level yet: the state courts.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in Common-wealth Court, the commissioners allege that Ling, the county's chief judge, illegally seized county funds and made unauthorized payments without accounting for the money he spent.
"Let's face it. ... By writing court orders that violated the law, he broke the law," Commissioner Chairman Kirt Morris, one of the lawsuit's petitioners, said Friday.
Ling said Friday that he hadn't yet received the lawsuit and couldn't comment until he reviewed the filing.
The lawsuit cites Ling's movement of tens of thousands of dollars intended for drunken-driving classes to an account outside the county's supervision. In June, Ling placed the cash under an outside auditor's review and announced that DUI teachers - usually probation officers - would be paid directly from the account.
The move incensed county officials, who expect to audit and review all government money regardless of its source.
Ling's Oct. 16 court order forcing the commissioners to pay probation officers' bonuses was particularly hard to swallow, Morris said, noting that refusal to follow the order would have landed Morris in jail for contempt of court.
The order listed seniority-based annual bonuses, ranging from $5,000 to $16,000, to be paid by the county treasurer regardless of the commissioners' approval.
"Even if the judge controls the funds, they still belong to the county," Morris said.
The commissioners filed an appeal to Ling's October order alongside their lawsuit Friday.
"We'll be handling that like any normal appeal," Ling said.
At the heart of the dispute is an age-old quarrel between counties' elected officers and their judiciaries. Morris said county-level officials throughout the state have eagerly watched the battle in Bedford County, seeking a precedent for their own financial conflicts.
The disagreement centers on the county's probation office, which operates under Ling's authority. Probation officers have long received bonuses atop what Ling and Chief Probation Officer Keith Bowser have called meager salaries, but their tendency to request more than they could repay became a point of contention with the commissioners.
Ling's decision last month to return the bulk of the seized money - some $300,000 - apparently wasn't enough to defuse the conflict. The lawsuit demands that Ling account for the payments he'd made and for the money he still holds, while requesting an official order enjoining him from taking control of any further funds.
The commissioners' lawsuit, filed in Harrisburg by the Pittsburgh-based Cohen & Grigsby law office, isn't the case's first appearance in the judicial system.
In October, Ling filed a U.S. Department of Labor complaint against the commissioners, accusing them of refusing to pay probation officers' overtime. The officers' union filed a related grievance in late September.
Ling hasn't refrained from using court orders as weapons in the dispute, demonstrating his legal authority when the commissioners have challenged him.
The lawsuit, however, is the first time the case has been brought to a judge above Ling's level. A hearing date has not yet been set.
"I didn't want to do this," Morris said, noting that he'd hoped to resolve the issue outside the courts. "We tried for six, seven, eight months."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.