Primary 2013/Westmoreland County: District attorney's race highlights Nov. 5 election

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Westmoreland County voters will go to the polls Nov. 5 to elect a district attorney, prothonotary, clerk of courts, coroner and judge.

It has been a quiet election, with candidates crisscrossing the 1,000-square mile county to meet people at fire halls, fall festivals and campaign rallies.

There are no major federal or state races this year, such as president or governor, to bring out large numbers of voters. There are only a handful of hot school board, council or mayoral races, so election officials expect a light turnout, as in the primary.

District Attorney John Peck, 66, a Democrat from New Kensington, is the veteran incumbent among the candidates. He's been the county's chief law enforcement officer for 19 years.

His opponent is Peter Borghetti, 54, a Murrysville Republican who is a corporate attorney with the Pittsburgh law firm of Meyer Unkovic and Scott.

Mr. Peck oversees a staff of 62, including 23 lawyers and 16 detectives.

He regularly prosecutes criminal cases in court and has tried 50 homicide cases while district attorney. That includes obtaining convictions and sentences of death for two adults among the "Greensburg Six," a group of friends who tortured and murdered a mentally challenged woman in 2010.

Mr. Borghetti says the office has a good reputation.

"I've talked to attorneys and there are good ADAs in the office," he said. "But everyone can be better. I would use my management experience and analytical skills to evaluate the office personnel, set goals and set up training and mentoring programs to help the attorneys work smarter."

Mr. Peck said since his salary is almost as much as county judges -- it is $1,000 less than their $173,000 salary -- he believes taxpayers deserve a DA who tries cases, noting Mr. Borghetti has no criminal court experience.

Mr. Borghetti said he was a manager for General Electric and would use those skills to develop a team approach. He didn't rule out trying cases but said he would look for the best person in the office to go into the courtroom.

If elected, Mr. Borghetti wants to try to prevent the rising number of accidental drug overdoses in the county. Some are from heroin, but the majority now are from misuse of prescription painkiller drugs such as Oxycontin. Last year there were 78 drug overdoses in the county.

"I've been going to fairs and passing out lollipops to the young kids, saying 'Do lollipops, not drugs,' then engaging the parents," he said. "I want to be the person to bridge the gap between the DA's office and the community -- schools and parents -- in helping to work together to reduce these deaths."

"We try to be proactive," said Mr. Peck. "We requested 20 collection boxes to be placed in police departments to dispose of expired and unused prescription drugs, rather than letting them get into the hands of children. We participate in numerous drug summits in the county to make parents aware of extreme dangers of drugs, and we are participating in the county's new drug task force."

Mr. Borghetti wants to form his own county drug task force. The state attorney general's office has a drug task force, comprising local municipal police, which operates in the county.

He said police in the county have told him money from the state attorney general's office sometimes has run out, which brings drug investigations to a stop.

"I want to be a lobbyist for more drug resources with the state representatives, FBI, [Drug Enforcement Administration] and [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]," he said. "I want to get people who care, in nonprofits and in the schools, to work together on this overdose problem."

Mr. Peck said, "The state does most of the drug investigations, with its drug task force in the county made up of municipal police, and we prosecute the cases. The state police are extremely active, and our detectives also work with municipal police in Greensburg and North Huntingdon, who do their own undercover investigations."

"This is a societal issue, too," Mr. Peck said. "As parents, we need to educate our children about the dangers of drugs."

Prothonotary

Christina O'Brien is running for her second term as prothonotary and is being challenged by Mike Powers of Hempfield.

Mrs. O'Brien, 46, of Mount Pleasant is a Democrat and also served four years as the Democratic jury commissioner.

Mr. Powers, 25, of Hempfield is a UPS manager and has been active with the county GOP.

The prothonotary's office handles about 30,000 court papers a year, primarily those involved in civil lawsuits. The office files divorces, child custody papers and appeals, as well as protection from abuse orders and issues passports.

Mrs. O'Brien points to recent improvements she has made: making historical naturalization records available online, extending hours one evening a week for passport services (including taking photos) and accepting credit card payments.

She is currently working on a yearlong project with the Westmoreland Bar Association and the county computer department to implement e-filing of court documents.

Mr. Powers was executive director of the county Republican Party for eight months in 2011. He also worked for the re-election campaign state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Latrobe, in 2012 and was Western Pennsylvania campaign coordinator for U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith in 2012.

"Wasting taxpayer dollars and not working full time are the big issues in the campaign," said Mr. Powers. "Her family has been in county offices for over 30 years. The prothonotary office is top-heavy for managerial staff. They have a first deputy and a second deputy in the office.

"My plan is that I'll save $200,000 in my first four years, by not filling the first and second deputy jobs," he said. "If I go to work every day and my office door is open, why do we need two or three other people doing the same job?"

But Mrs. O'Brien said she has no second deputy in her office. And she says her first deputy is well worth the money.

"She works extremely hard, in managing and financial accounting and computer maintenance," Mrs. O'Brien said.

"I work full time," she said, "and I've taken some of these projects home over the weekend."

"I believe once we get the e-filing up and running, we will be able to cut back on staff," she said. Attorneys will be able to send some documents by email. "Through attrition, I believe eventually we can cut three people (of 20 staff members) and save $150,000 a year."

Mr. Powers said that he advocated changes in the office during the primary campaign -- allowing the use of credit cards and extended hours one night a week.

"I notice since the primary, when my primary opponent and I raised some of these issues, she has implemented them," he said. "But why not do it in the first 31/2 years in office, and not right before the election?"

Mrs. O'Brien said the changes she has made -- using credit cards and extended hours for passports -- were put into the 2013 budget in September 2012 so that they could be completed this year.

She said Thursday evening hours and taking photos has increased the number of passports issued in her office from 40 last year to 400 this year. She said it is a popular service because no appointments are needed, unlike the post office.

Clerk of Courts

Republican incumbent Bryan Kline, 32, of Penn Township is running for his second term. He is opposed by Dan Blissman, 64, of Hempfield, who is the part-time Democratic jury commissioner, a post he has held since 2009.

The Clerk of Courts office contains all criminal court records and handles payment of fines for court costs and victim restitution.

Mr. Kline points to several steps he has taken to recoup delinquent court fees owed to the county and state by defendants.

He said last year he developed an administrative cost hearing process with county judges for those who have completed probation but have failed to make payments on their court costs.

He said his office holds a hearing once a month and may send out 100 summons to those who are delinquent, and normally collects between $7,000 and $10,000 a month in back fees. A judge can hold a person in contempt of court as well.

The costs also include restitution to victims, as with cases of retail theft or property damage.

Also, in July, he began deducting 20 percent of county inmates' jail accounts for personal items, such as toothpaste and shampoo, for back court fees, he said.

"We usually get a check of about $8,000 a month from the prison for that," he said.

Mr. Kline said he also began a program in 2011 to move to suspend a person's driver's license if no payment had been made for 90-120 days for court costs associated with traffic violations. The program is permitted under state law, he said, and is coordinated with PennDOT. He said more than 500 drivers' licenses have been suspended by PennDOT in the county since it began.

He said court cost collections are expected to rise to $6 million in 2013, up from $4.5 million in 2009 under the previous administration, and $5.4 million last year.

Mr. Blissman said if elected he would continue the delinquent court costs administrative hearings that Mr. Kline started.

"I agree with that; people should be accountable," he said.

He said he would have to investigate other programs initiated by Mr. Kline to collect delinquent court costs.

"I would have to look at the program to deduct 20 percent from inmates' personal accounts at the jail," he said. "I would want to see how much money people have to see if they could pay."

And he said he would want to look at individual cases before moving to suspend someone's driver's license for nonpayment of court costs for traffic violations.

"Before I'd take someone's driver's license, I'd want to look at what a person owes," he said. "If he works, and you take away his driver's licence and he can't get to work, he can't pay back the court costs. I'd want to look at each case."

"I love to serve the public," said Mr. Blissman, "and I've cut the budget in the jury commissioner's office every year."

Most row officers in the county earn $65,000 a year.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com. First Published October 17, 2013 1:11 AM


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