Ex-sheriff pleads guilty to macing

DeFazio admits to coercing employees into contributing to his campaign fund

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It took just 32 minutes to end the five-year federal investigation that left a stain on former Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio's long law enforcement career.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. DeFazio, 57, of Baldwin Borough, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of macing -- that he coerced employees into contributing to his campaign fund by threatening them with bad job assignments.

It is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison.

Mr. DeFazio will be sentenced Feb. 23.

Wearing a dark blue suit and brick red tie, Mr. DeFazio stood at the lectern before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, only leaning in occasionally to answer her questions at the microphone.

"Do you understand you will have to acknowledge your guilt?" Judge Conti asked during his plea hearing.

"Yes, your honor," Mr. DeFazio replied. It was an answer repeated more than a dozen times during the hearing.

The U.S. attorney's office claims that Mr. DeFazio, who slipped out through the back door of the federal courthouse after the hearing to avoid the media, knowingly participated and benefited from the scheme.

"We believe, and what he pled guilty to, was he engaged in a scheme and directed others," said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. "He knowingly participated in that activity."

Defense attorney Martin Dietz said that the stipulation that was part of the plea agreement clearly says that his client only "indirectly" was involved in the macing.

Mr. DeFazio did not know, at the time the activity was occurring, that it was illegal, Mr. Dietz said.

"I don't view this as a public corruption conviction," Mr. Dietz said. "He was not actively involved."

But, he continued, "Sheriff DeFazio does not dispute that tickets were sold in his office. He should've known. He should've taken action."

His client pleaded guilty, he said, because he "did what he thought was right."

As part of the scheme, top officers in the department would sell tickets to campaign fund-raisers to deputies and other employees. Those who bought tickets and contributed were rewarded with plum assignments and overtime opportunities.

Those who didn't were punished, the government said.

"They were contributing because they thought they had to do so to maintain their employment," Ms. Buchanan said.

Whether Mr. DeFazio forced employees to contribute himself, or had his underlings do it, the results were the same, she continued.

"He told them to go out and get contributions, and they got them by coercing employees," she said.

"The requirement under the law is that he caused it to happen," added Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings, who prosecuted the case. "However he insulated himself doesn't matter."

Mr. DeFazio stepped down from the sheriff's office on Oct. 31, ending a 36-year career in law enforcement. His resignation was not part of the Nov. 7 plea agreement, Ms. Buchanan said.

The document includes a stipulation that Mr. DeFazio is not allowed to hold public office again.

Both sides agreed that there was never any discussion about Mr. DeFazio's pension during the plea negotiations.

Because macing is not among the 22 state charges that can disqualify a person from receiving a pension, it is likely Mr. DeFazio will keep his.

His plea, Ms. Buchanan said, brings an end to the decades-long practice of patronage and political contributions in the sheriff's office.

"Pete DeFazio's top lieutenants were corrupt, but they were incredibly loyal to [him], and that made the investigation incredibly difficult," Ms. Buchanan said.

Accepting his plea, she said, benefits the criminal justice system by conserving resources. Had the case continued, she believes her office could have developed a much stronger case against Mr. DeFazio and possibly filed additional charges.

Unless new information is uncovered, the investigation is now closed.

As for his client, Mr. Dietz said Mr. DeFazio is relieved that the matter is finally resolved, and he would now like to fade into the background and enjoy his retirement.

"Quite frankly, the federal investigation did wear on him," Mr. Dietz said.

Ms. Buchanan will not make a sentencing recommendation until after she reviews the pre-sentence investigation report prepared by the probation office.

"There have been no promises that have been made to Pete DeFazio in relation to his guilty plea," she said.

Former Lt. Cmdr. Richard Stewart, who also pleaded guilty to macing, was sentenced in August to one year of probation. But, Ms. Buchanan noted, he cooperated with investigators from early on.

"Stewart is clearly in a very different category than the other defendants in this case," she said.

The two other top officers in the department who have been convicted as part of the investigation were sentenced to prison.

Former Capt. Frank Schiralli is serving 26 months for lying to a grand jury, and former Chief Deputy Dennis Skosnik is serving five years and three months for bribery, tampering with a witness, mail and wire fraud, and money laundering.

Though his client could walk away from this with only a probationary sentence, Mr. Dietz said he does not consider it a victory for Mr. DeFazio.

"The top law enforcement official in Allegheny County walks out of the federal courthouse and pleads guilty? I don't consider that a legal victory."

Paula Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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