A Philadelphia law firm is suing Lancaster County for unpaid legal fees stemming from a 2019 dispute between the county commissioners and former District Attorney Craig Stedman.
Kleinbard LLC, which represented Stedman in a lawsuit that alleged the county’s top elected officials were infringing on his authority, is asking the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas to compel the county to pay $74,139.06 for its services.
At the time, the commissioners said the county would not authorize the use of taxpayer money to pay for Stedman’s legal representation. But Stedman submitted an invoice to the county for his legal expenses in December 2019, just prior to the end of his term as prosecutor (he was elected that November as a county judge).
The lawsuit, filed on Oct. 7, says county officials “have failed, refused, and even blocked payment” of the invoice submitted by Stedman “(w)ithout any legal authority or justification.”
Kleibard’s suit also argues that since the firm was representing Stedman in his official capacity as district attorney, his successor, Heather Adams, was bound by the terms of the agreement and should have sought the payment on Kleinbard’s behalf after she took office in January 2020.
Adams said she would not comment on ongoing litigation.
Commissioner Craig Lehman declined to comment on the suit, and Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said only that it was “disappointing.”
Commissioner Josh Parsons, who was an outspoken critic of Stedman’s leadership of the DA’s office, said in a statement that the board was right to fight for transparency over how money seized by the Drug Task Force was being used.
“Our position has been simple all along – citizens have a right to know where government money is going,” he said. “It should be asked why we have been attacked for simply wanting citizens to know where government money was going? This Board of Commissioners will always continue to stand for good government, including in the face of attacks.”
Parsons said that the commissioners’ push for transparency was vindicated by Adams’ June 2020 announcement that $150,000 was missing from the task force’s coffers. She said an internal theft was likely to blame and is currently awaiting the results of an investigation being conducted by the state Attorney General’s office.
Asked Thursday if the commissioners would pay Kleinbard, County Solicitor Jackie Pfursich said she could not comment on active litigation. In September, when Kleinbard took an initial step toward filing suit, Pfursich said “the (commissioners’) position on the matter has not changed.”
Kleinbard attorney Mark Seiberling did not return a call seeking comment Thursday, but in January 2020 he said that if the county did not pay, the firm “will have no choice but to file a lawsuit against them to compel them.”
In February 2019, LNP|LancasterOnline began reporting on personnel issues in the district attorney’s office under Stedman. The newspaper reported that Stedman had suspended a prosecutor in his office, who at the time was campaigning for district attorney, in what was described to LNP as a politically motivated action. The county’s human resources department later reviewed the matter and determined the prosecutor’s suspension was “related to political campaign activities.”
In early March 2019, LNP also reported that Stedman used over $20,000 in Drug Task Force money to lease a sport utility vehicle for himself outside of the county’s normal procurement process. Stedman also reimbursed himself for miles driven in the vehicle, which was government-owned, though he paid some of the reimbursement back after he was notified that LNP requested records about the vehicle.
In response to LNP’s reporting, the county commissioners issued statements critical of Stedman’s actions. The county human resources department also issued recommendations on how the personnel issues in the DA’s office should have been handled.
Following the commissioners’ statements, Stedman hired Kleinbard and sued in Commonwealth Court, claiming the commissioners were interfering with his constitutional authority to independently run his office and also that they were trying to improperly audit his use of drug forfeiture funds.
The commissioners claimed they were merely exercising their First Amendment rights to comment on Stedman’s actions and had taken no steps to block his use of the drug forfeiture funds. They also said they had not authoritatively directed him on how to handle the personnel issues.
The case was eventually thrown out of Commonwealth Court because the judges ruled it was an improper venue for the matter. Stedman, now a judge on the Court of Common Pleas, refiled in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas in December 2019, shortly before taking his seat on the bench. His successor, District Attorney Heather Adams, ended the case when she took office in January 2020.
The commissioners approved the use of taxpayer funds to cover the $100,000 cost of their own outside representation in the case.
The Attorney General’s office said it had no update on its investigation into the missing $150,000 in task force money.