Family court: Judge McDaniel's actions aren't fair to taxpayers

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In an environment where nepotism barely raises an eyebrow, the actions of Allegheny County President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel are all the more eye-popping because they go so far beyond routine, improper practices.

Judge McDaniel is the administrative head of the county court system that employs both of her daughters and their husbands. Until recently, both daughters worked on their mother's personal staff -- bad enough, but an all-too-familiar situation in the court, where at least six other judges also employ close relatives.

Now the judge has created a new position that gives one daughter, Lindsay Hildenbrand, more money and greater job security. In addition, the switch could come with costs to the public beyond Ms. Hildenbrand's salary and benefits. In creating the job, director of jury operations, the court system eliminated another position and the county pension fund could be on the hook for paying the dismissed worker full benefits for six extra years because of it.

Ethics experts and the American Bar Association agree this cottage industry for the judge's family is unseemly, and many states have banned the practice, but it doesn't appear to violate any law or conflict with rules for the Pennsylvania court system.

That's an affront to every Pennsylvania taxpayer and every person using the state courts, which should fill every job based on know-how and not know-who.

At least if the neighborhood grocer wants to hire his sons and daughters to operate the store, the money to do so comes out of his own pocket. In Judge McDaniel's case, it's the public that is paying the tab.

The judge earns $172,382 a year, an uptick of $2,841 over others on the local bench because of her status as president judge. Ms. Hildenbrand, who had been making $54,960 as her mother's executive assistant, now earns $56,511. The judge's other daughter, Jamie Quigley, a tipstaff for her mom and now also her executive assistant, makes $54,232.

Ms. Hildenbrand's husband, Girard, earns $57,787 as supervisor of costs and restitution in the court's pretrial services; Ms. Quigley's husband, Brian, recently promoted to assistant director of jury operations -- his sister-in-law is his boss -- earns $50,395.

No matter how well these individuals fulfill their duties, it would be naive to believe that they were the most qualified people the court system could find. In the case of Ms. Hildenbrand's new job, nobody was looking. The position was made to order for her, and no applications were taken. An added bonus for her is that, since she is not on Judge McDaniel's personal staff, her job status won't be affected if or when the judge leaves the bench.

Finally there is the question of the abuse of pension dollars. Mari Hertzberg, the wife of Judge Alan Hertzberg, was supervisor of jury operations in the court's civil division, a job that was eliminated in the restructuring that put Ms. Hildenbrand in place. At 54, Ms. Hertzberg would not be eligible for a full county pension if she'd simply left the county's employ but, because her position was eliminated, she could qualify for full benefits immediately.

So what's the answer? The Pennsylvania Supreme Court could create rules that would prohibit nepotism. The state's Judicial Conduct Board, if it receives a formal complaint against Judge McDaniel, could file formal charges, and the Court of Judicial Discipline could impose sanctions.

But don't hold your breath that any of that will take place.

Instead, business as usual -- with the bar now raised on just what nepotism looks like -- will continue in Allegheny County until taxpayers revolt. Because this situation is revolting.


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