Washington County District Attorney Steve Toprani in the county courthouse lobby.
By Janice Crompton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It may be too soon to judge his performance after only 120 days in office, but local officials, police and even those who questioned whether he could do the job say Washington County District Attorney Steven Toprani is leading the office in the right direction.
Mr. Toprani, 29, of Carroll, defeated six-term incumbent district attorney John C. Pettit last year in a stunning victory over issues such as an FBI investigation and accusations that Mr. Pettit abused his power.
Although Mr. Toprani was mocked by Mr. Pettit and his supporters for having only a few years experience as a lawyer and none trying a criminal case in the courtroom, he won by a landslide, saying he would work hard to clean up the office and streamline operations.
And he's been doing that, launching or retooling several programs that have resulted in numerous drug arrests, non-felony cases moving faster through the court system, and perhaps his most popular step, making assistant district attorneys and detectives available to police agencies around the clock.
"It's nice for our investigators who may need advice or direction on an investigation," said State Police Lt. Rick Sethman, adding that state police have already begun consulting the DA's after-hours staff on legal questions about several homicides and other crimes this year.
"I know we're going to need it," said Washington Police Chief Roger Blythe, whose department hasn't yet used the service. "It's a good thing to know."
Top notch investigators
It also gives smaller agencies the chance to tap investigators like Michael Aaron, the county's new chief detective, who is a recognized firearms expert and has investigated hundreds of homicides as a detective with the Camden County, N. J., prosecutor's office for 15 years.
Chief Blythe said officers and detectives in his department have told him they approve of the plans Mr. Toprani is implementing.
"I'm getting very good feedback," he said. "Things are gelling very well."
Lt. Sethman noted that Mr. Toprani has been attending meetings with state police investigators and shows an enthusiasm for his job that is heartening.
Chief Blythe agreed, saying the district attorney has attended local crime watch meetings, and he expects to work with the new DA's revamped drug task force to crack down on area drug dealers.
Mr. Toprani said he's made "monumental" changes in the county drug task force, beginning with the replacement of its single outdated computer and antiquated evidence and inventory tracking system.
The lack of a reliable evidence tracking and management system got Mr. Pettit into hot water with convicted drug dealer Fred Brilla, who sued Mr. Pettit for the return of several items taken from him when he was arrested in 1989.
Mr. Pettit told a federal court he couldn't find the items, which included a motorcycle and a computer, and was ordered to pay Mr. Brilla damages. He recently won a lawsuit against the county which now has to ante up more than $100,000 for the damage award. Mr. Brilla was killed in a bar shooting in 2003.
The new system being introduced by Mr. Toprani will use bar code labels that can be scanned like groceries in a store. Type in the bar code and data about the item, including its location, is displayed.
"There will never be a question about chain of evidence if this system is implemented correctly," he said.
The office has received new software and computers, and task force members who were using Post-it notes to communicate with each other will soon have laptop computers, thanks to a grant from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
According to Mr. Toprani's chief of staff Steven Fischer, the county will be a federal "test bed" to help jump-start the use of technology for drug investigative units.
Task force revitalized
The task force has been reorganized with a command detective, two sergeants, a lieutenant and teams of narcotics detectives who conduct simultaneous missions in various areas of the county.
So far this year, the task force has made 20 arrests. Mr. Pettit took flak for letting the drug task force fall by the wayside in recent years. In 2007, it made about 30 arrests.
Mr. Toprani has increased pay for the 25 task force members -- all of them municipal police officers from within the county -- to $15 to $20 per hour, depending on experience. They were previously earning about $12 an hour, not enough Mr. Toprani said, "for kicking in drug dealers' doors."
The majority of the funding for the task force comes from the state attorney general's office, which manages most of the drug task forces in the state. Washington County is one of the few exceptions because Mr. Pettit felt, as Mr. Toprani does, that drug arrests could be better handled locally.
"We feel that we have our finger on the local pulse," Mr. Toprani said. "We can manage and prosecute cases better."
In a similar vein, his office has used a $151,471 grant from the state Gaming Control Board to fund a crackdown of illegal slot machines that has involved assigning an assistant district attorney to act as a gaming task force coordinator. The grant was recently used to hire a gaming detective and will pay for local officers and detectives to investigate and prosecute cases involving illegal gaming with slots devices.
On the fast track
Mr. Toprani is also working to improve the county's fast-track court system, which allows defendants who meet certain criteria to plead guilty to minor crimes at the preliminary hearing level, rather than clogging the county court system.
To implement the improvements, Mr. Toprani has assigned two assistant district attorneys on bi-weekly rotations to attend preliminary hearings to familiarize themselves with the cases or work out deals if appropriate.
"It's one of the critical points of any case," Mr. Toprani said of preliminary hearings. Previously, "the cases weren't being viewed by an attorney at this crucial stage."
County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca agrees. "I think it's a good practice," she said.
Judge O'Dell Seneca said she has heard no complaints about Mr. Toprani and said she has found him to be responsive and open to suggestions.
"It's wonderful to have the line of communications open," she said.
District Justice J. Albert Spence, who handles more cases than any of the county's 10 other justices, said he and his colleagues approve of the job Mr. Toprani is doing so far.
"We get a very good feeling about this fellow," he said. "We're very pleased with him. So far, so good."
Washington County Commissioners Chairman Larry Maggi said the board is working with Mr. Toprani to raise the office's budget for computers and other necessary upgrades. Previously, the office worked mainly with typewriters.
"We fully expected the budget to go up if there was a new person [in office]," Mr. Maggi said.
One of the main concerns about the office was its lack of space. Mr. Maggi said the county has begun soliciting proposals from property owners near the courthouse for additional office space for the district attorney's office. Mr. Toprani said the office in the courthouse would remain open, but the staff could be split between two nearby locations.
Staff keep their jobs
Although the office had been mismanaged and was in "total chaos" by the time he took over in January, Mr. Toprani said he could see when he arrived that the problem was with a lack of leadership and not the staff. Ignoring some of his closest advisers, Mr. Toprani elected to keep the office's 28 employees.
"We wanted to give everybody a chance," said Mr. Toprani.
One lawyer has since retired and another resigned. One of the replacements has been used to bolster the office's sex crimes unit, which had been understaffed.
Mr. Toprani said he plans to eventually try some cases himself, but for now he's still getting used to his new role.
The most surprising change so far? Mr. Toprani said he's lost his anonymity, and even gets recognized while attending Penguins hockey games.
"You never get to take off your public hat," he said.
His first assistant district attorney, Craig McKay, and longtime prosecutor Michael Lucas who served as first assistant under Mr. Pettit, make up a two-man major crimes unit which is expected to handle trials involving homicides or other serious crimes.
Together, they successfully prosecuted Jessica Rizor in March for the first-degree murder of her newborn baby in November 2004.
They are expected to prosecute Joseph John Natale for beating and suffocating his girlfriend Amanda Lynn Faux at their Charleroi apartment in January, and four Mon Valley men who are accused in the March murders of Mr. Toprani's childhood neighbors, Howard and Nancy Springer.
State Police Lt. Sethman said he's also glad to see a backlog of cases moving forward under Mr. Toprani's administration, including homicide trials for Terrell Yarbrough and Nathan "Boo" Herring, who were accused of kidnaping and murdering two Franciscan University students in 1999. Although the men were already convicted of the murders in Ohio, they were ordered to be retried in Pennsylvania where the murders took place.
Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington and Jefferson College and a commentator on local politics, said it was important for Mr. Toprani to make himself highly visible and accessible, which he has.
He said Mr. Toprani's fresh approach and leadership have restored confidence in the district attorney's office.
"For a young man, he's demonstrated leadership," Dr. DiSarro said.