Judge panel hears ex-Allegheny County councilman's appeal

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A state appeals court Tuesday heard arguments in the pending criminal case against former Allegheny County Councilman Charles P. McCullough.

Mr. McCullough, 58, of Upper St. Clair was charged in 2009 with stealing nearly $200,000 from an elderly woman for whom he served as a trustee and power of attorney. Also charged is his sister, Kathleen McCullough, who served as a companion to the woman, Shirley Jordan, earning $60 per hour.

The brother and sister are charged with conspiring to steal Ms. Jordan's money.

The case, which has been postponed at least eight times, is on hold as a decision by the trial court denying a motion to dismiss the charges is appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen denied the motion in March 2012.

Jon Pushinsky, who represents Mr. McCullough, argued to the appellate court that the charges against his client are prohibited because the issues at hand were decided in a court of equal jurisdiction -- Allegheny County Orphans Court -- in 2008, and that the district attorney's office was a party to that action.

According to Mr. Pushinsky, the prosecution should have filed a petition to reopen the case, which can be done for up to five years, and it failed to do that.

But assistant district attorney Keaton Carr argued that his office was not a party in the orphans court matter, that orphans court does not handle criminal matters and therefore Mr. McCullough's argument falls.

"This was not a mistake by Charles McCullough and Kathleen McCullough," Mr. Carr said.

Judges Jack A. Pannella, Kate Ford Elliott and John L. Musmanno heard the arguments.

In his argument, Mr. Pushinsky said that all of the expenses approved by Mr. McCullough as power of attorney were approved by either PNC Bank or Northwest Bank, which held Ms. Jordan's accounts. Those were then upheld by Orphans Court Judge Lee Mazur.

"Once orphans court saw there was no problem with these transactions, the commonwealth cannot prosecute him," Mr. Pushinsky said.

But Mr. Carr disagreed.

"Just because you fool everyone, and you don't look at the document closely, doesn't mean it's valid," he said. "He still had a duty to be acting in the victim's interest.

"Making political contributions and donating to charities to curry favor for himself is not in her best interest."

Scott Coffey, who is representing Ms. McCullough, said his client never stole anything.

"She was offered a job by her brother. She didn't set the pay rate," he said. "There's no evidence of any conspiracy between Kathleen McCullough and Charles McCullough."

But Mr. Carr disagreed. He asked the judges to look at the entirety of the case.

"It's undisputable she took the money," he said. "The issue on appeal appears to be whether she intended to steal from the victim."

Mr. Carr told the court that the timing of Ms. McCullough taking the job coincides with her being fired from a former position where she was accused of stealing $1 million -- and was later convicted in criminal court and sentenced to two to four years in prison.

"All of your evidence turns on the conspiracy?" asked Judge Ford Elliott.

"That's correct. If you look at these facts individually, it all looks innocent enough," Mr. Carr said. "But when you put them together, the conspiracy comes into view."

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published October 22, 2013 5:33 PM

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