By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Editor’s Note: This story replaces an earlier version that corrects statements made by Lisa Middleman’s campaign regarding the involvement of County Council Chief of Staff Ken Varhola in a press conference held on Thursday. Despite being labeled by Middleman’s campaign as the person who led the press conference and made allegations that Middleman violated county election laws, he merely sent the press release to media members on behalf of Councilors Same DeMarco and Denise Ranalli Russell. Middleman’s campaign later sent a correction, clarifying Varhola’s role but did not issue a second release or answer how they made the error.
Two members of Allegheny County Council are filing an ethics complaint alleging that Lisa Middleman, an independent candidate for Allegheny County District Attorney, has been campaigning on county time and at county expense.
Republican County Councilor Sam DeMarco and outgoing Democrat, Denise Ranalli Russell called a press conference Monday. And while Middleman called the press conference a “transparently false political attack” in a statement released Thursday afternoon, she blamed Allegheny County Clerk Ken Varhola for the press conference. The Pittsburgh Current was not notified of the press conference and originally reported information about Varhola’s involvement from Middleman’s press release.
On Friday Morning, DeMarco contacted the Current and said Varhola’s involvement was merely sending the press release.
According to the release sent on behalf of DeMarco and Ranalli Rusell:
“On October 7th, 2019 at or around 12 p.m., Lisa Middleman, Assistant Public Defender with the Allegheny County Public Defenders’ office, held a political rally for the benefit of her campaign for District Attorney in the rotunda of the Allegheny County Courthouse. This event was political in nature, as it was initiated and organized by her campaign, live-streamed from her campaign Facebook account, advertised on her campaign website and campaign signage was prominently displayed behind those in attendance as she and her campaign staff spoke.
“Additionally, this campaign event was misrepresented as an “emergency rally and press conference” which led to the mobilization of the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department; presenting an unreasonable financial burden on the taxpayers of Allegheny County and its resources. This ongoing pattern of campaigning on taxpayer’s dime is unethical and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. This is not the first instance of Ms. Middleman’s political activity on county time, but it does seem to be the first political campaign event that occurred in a county workspace and during county hours of operation.”
Middleman is the Allegheny County Assistant Public Defender.
The “emergency rally and press conference” at the Allegheny County Courthouse was a noontime event in response to a Post-Gazette story that detailed how four teenagers were held in jail for 15 months for a shooting despite all having ironclad alibis that proved their innocence. The teens have since been released.
In the statement, Middleman’s campaign didn’t deny that the press conference was a political event, but that it was all handled above board. Middleman wrote that the event was held on her lunch hour and it was announced on her campaign website and social media and was paid for with campaign funds.
Additionally, WESA’s Chris Potter reported that the sheriff’s office did not take any additional steps because of Middleman’s event. According to WESA:
“We didn’t do anything that wasn’t routine,” said Kevin Kraus, a spokesman for the office. “We didn’t know how many people were coming, so like we do any other time this happens, we reassign people to different parts of the courthouse strategically.” But he said the situation was handled with deputies already on hand at the building, and entailed no significant disruption or expense. No other security was called in, and the event was orderly. … There were no issues.
At the campaign event in question, Middleman went hard at current DA Stephen Zappala saying, “A prosecutor has an ethical responsibility to the accused, the victim, and the people of Allegheny County. Stephen Zappala has failed in that responsibility.”
After the event, Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU issued a statement saying, “District Attorney Stephen Zappala likes to present himself as a reformer, but his record calls that into question. Part of being a reformer is being willing to defend one’s record in a public setting. With the revelation that Mr. Zappala allowed four innocent teenagers to spend 15 months in prison and his meager acknowledgment that the wrongful detention was ‘… my responsibility, I guess,’ the fight for greater accountability from prosecutors to their constituents could not be more pressing.
“To that end, we hope that Mr. Zappala will accept the invitation to attend a public candidates’ forum scheduled for Monday, October 14. He refused to attend a forum in the run-up to this spring’s primary election and, to date, has refused to join the one scheduled a week from today. The residents of Allegheny County deserve better.”