Higgins gets 8 years of probation

Former Bedford DA ordered to undergo addiction counseling

BEDFORD — A mixture of dismay and relief filled the courtroom Friday where a judge accepted a plea bargain and sentenced former Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins.

President Judge Thomas Ling sentenced Higgins to eight years of probation, four months on an ankle bracelet, 1,125 hours of community service and a $9,700 fine. Higgins is also to undergo alcohol, sexual addiction and mental health counseling.

The former DA pleaded guilty in May to numerous misdemeanor counts for abusing his position to gain sexual favors from female drug dealers for overly lenient sentences or to avoid arrest and for compromising the identities of multiple undercover informants.

“We’re extremely pleased with the results of the sentencing hearing,” Steven Passarello, Higgins’ defense attorney, said. “We believe the sentence was fair, and we believed it balanced the sentencing factors appropriately.”

Higgins faced multiple misdemeanor counts of obstruction of law enforcement, intimidation of a witness, hindering prosecution, recklessly endangering another person and official oppression. He resigned as district attorney April 4, the same day of his arraignment in front of Magisterial District Judge Kathy Calhoun.

The plea bargain offered by the Office of Attorney General guaranteed no incarceration and no filing of felony charges. Supervision and fines were up to the court’s discretion.

“The court imposed sentence today for a former district attorney who abused the powers of his office to commit crimes and deprive the people of Bedford County of a fair, impartial justice system,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.

“Higgins abused his office and committed crimes over an extended period of time, but no one did anything. Our office worked with the Pennsylvania State Police to charge and remove Higgins from office, so the district attorney’s office could function with stability and integrity. Higgins will never again be able to use the tools of a prosecutor’s office to commit these crimes,” he added.

Others at the hearing expressed differing opinions about the sentencing.

John Coyle described the judge’s actions in court as biased. “Ling acted like he was on the defense’s side. He acted like a lawyer,” Coyle said.

Coyle had stood up in court during public comment to say he predicted this abuse of power by Higgins. “I told you so. I told you so,” he said.

Robert Lewis, who, during public comment at the hearing, expressed his disgust at the “serious offenses” and the “gross abuse of power,” described the sentencing as a joke.

“Your everyday citizen is not going to get that kind of consideration,” Lewis said. “Josh Shapiro came in, and he immediately said, ‘I will bump them down to misdemeanors.’ That way he won’t do any jail time. Who else is going to get that kind of favoritism?”

“Nobody. Nobody,” he added. “You have to be a member of the club.”

Lewis shared the story of his daughter dying from a heroin overdose about seven years ago while in front of the court, calling for “some kind of serious restitution” for Higgins. He accused the defendant of helping “drug dealers who sold poison.”

He suggested to the judge that Higgins serve a probation sentence that equaled the same length of time that he served in office.

While Lewis called for a more strict sentencing, others, including Higgins’ mother and uncle, requested leniency from Ling.

Patricia Higgins described her son as a “good person” who doesn’t do things with the intention of hurting anyone. She urged those in court to remember the drug busts Higgins did while in office and argued for leniency for the sake of her son’s children.

Higgins’ uncle, James Giberson, said the defendant has done nothing but “embrace the law.”

Passarello, Higgins’ attorney, argued he thinks his client took responsibility for his actions and demonstrated his remorse, imploring the court to consider Higgins’ wife and children. He added his client has lost a “great deal” already including his job, pension, good name and law license.

“He’s already been sentenced,” Passarello said. “I don’t know how much more punishment he needs.”

With teary eyes and his hair slicked back, Higgins stood up during his hearing to apologize to those in court.

“I’m deeply sorry,” he said, with his body turned halfway to address the crowd in a cracked voice. “I’ve accepted full responsibility for my actions.”

He said he put himself at the mercy of the court and will miss serving the community and using the talents God gave him.

Higgins explained that he was in a “difficult spot in his life” between 2014 and 2015, the time the crimes allegedly occurred.

He said he had been drinking too much and was not acting like the husband and father his family deserved.

Higgins added he panicked when he learned of the attorney general’s investigation. He said he made serious mistakes but has been “soul searching” and trying to better himself including attending daily Mass, seeing a counselor, spending more time with his family and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In response to Higgins’ apology, Senior Deputy Attorney General Tomm Mutschler said the former DA used his position to strengthen his power and committed actions that were “predatory, illegal and dangerous.”

Mutschler added that Higgins controlled information on drug investigations and chose to help drug dealers over police while attacking the credibility and reputation of certain officers.

He said the Office of Attorney General undertook a plea bargain, but “not lightly,” and decided to trade the possibility of jail for certainty of removing Higgins from office and his platform of power.

Ling told the court, prior to giving the sentencing, to consider Higgins’ initiative to step down as district attorney and to recognize some of the good work he did while in office.

He said he had a hard time believing Higgins did more harm than good but added the former DA put his personal interest before the community.

If Higgins had been convicted at trial, he would’ve potentially faced a maximum of 62 years in prison and $155,000 in fines.

Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.