DA seeks to block felon from taking office in New Castle

By jeanne starmack


new castle, pa.

The Lawrence County district attorney is asking the county common pleas court for an emergency order barring a felon from being sworn in as a city councilman.

Councilman-elect Gary Mitchell is set to take the oath of office at council’s swearing-in ceremony Monday. District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa was expected to be before the court at 1:30 p.m. today.

Lamancusa filed a court action Dec. 14 asking that Mitchell, whose felony drug conviction makes him ineligible under state law to hold public office, be stopped from taking the seat he won in the November election.

Mitchell was one of three Democrats among four candidates who sought three open seats on council. He was convicted in 2002 of selling crack cocaine to undercover agents.

Even though Mitchell’s candidacy was challenged by the Republican candidate, John Altman, the county board of elections maintained state law did not give it the right to prevent that candidacy.

Under state law, a district attorney or state attorney general has legal standing to challenge a felon’s attempt to hold office, but Lamancusa told Altman that he should not challenge Mitchell until after Mitchell won the election.

Altman tried in common pleas court to win legal standing to challenge Mitchell’s candidacy himself, but the court ruled he failed to prove his case.

He also asked the court in November to delay the election certification and order the elections board to disqualify Mitchell, but the court ruled he still hadn’t proved he deserved legal standing to petition.

Mitchell captured the third-highest number of votes in the election, beating Altman 1,866 to 1,693. After Mitchell was certified as a winner, Altman said he had virtually no chance to take one of the council seats he believes is rightfully his.

After the court bars Mitchell from serving, the law calls for council to fill the vacancy — and they will likely choose a Democrat over him, he said.

Mitchell said he has no intention of letting Lamancusa’s challenge go unanswered because he owes it to voters to try to take the council seat.

He filed a preliminary objection to Lamancusa’s complaint Wednesday, but Lamancusa said Mitchell should have filed an answer instead.

Mitchell is representing himself.

“An answer mirrors the complaint and answers each allegation,” Lamancusa said. Mitchell had 20 days from the Dec. 14 filing of the complaint to file his answer.

In his preliminary objection, Mitchell argues that Lamancusa’s complaint should be dismissed because he has petitioned the state board of pardons for clemency in his drug case. He argues that under state law, his petition for clemency constitutes “a prior action or agreement for alternative dispute resolution.”

He asks the court to dismiss or stay Lamancusa’s complaint until the state board decides on his application for clemency.

The board has told Mitchell that the application process is “lengthy.”