Tumultuous DA's Race In Centre County Nears Its End

May 15, 2017

Bernie Cantorna at a "Women for Bernie" event in State College April 11, 2017 (left). And District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller at a candidates' forum at Foxdale Village (right).
Credit Emily Reddy / WPSU

The Democratic primary race for Centre County District Attorney is being fought fiercely in Letters to the Editor, campaign mailers, debates and even Facebook pages specifically aimed at ousting current district attorney, Stacy Parks Miller.

There’s no Republican challenger on the ballot, so the winner of the Democratic primary will likely be the next district attorney.

Challenger Bernie Cantorna has some big endorsements in the race, including former Pennsylvania House member Ruth Rudy, State College mayor Elizabeth Goreham and the Fraternal Order of Police. Rudy says she supported Parks Miller when she first ran, but that the DA has become a problem.

“I think we need a change in the courthouse. I think the courthouse is in total disarray,” Rudy said. “And I was an elected official in the courthouse quite a while ago. I was Centre County Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts. So I know how important it is to have the courthouse operating efficiently and making sure everybody has a fair chance.”

Parks Miller has been Centre County’s top law enforcement officer for the last seven years, during which she’s prosecuted major cases related to drug trafficking, child abuse, rape and murder. Most recently, she brought charges against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and 18 of its members. At the press conference where Parks Miller announced those charges, Timothy Piazza’s father, Jim Piazza, thanked her for prosecuting his son’s death at the fraternity.

“We’d like to thank the State College Police Department, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and her office for doing a detailed and thorough job,” said Piazza.

But Parks Miller’s tenure has been plagued with scandals and suspicions. There have been some concrete impacts on the Centre County justice system, like the high turnover of lawyers and other staff.

In the seven years Parks Miller has been District Attorney, more than 40 employees in the DA’s office have been fired or have quit. In the seven years before she was in office, Cantorna says, it was just three.  But what Cantorna and his supporters call high turnover rates at the courthouse, Parks Miller calls “cleaning house.” She also says pay has been stagnant and she trains people well, so they move on.

Cantorna says he would do better.

“We have a turnover issue in our current office and we’re not just keeping people long enough and it’s frustrating law enforcement’s effort to do its job,” Cantorna said. “I have a teaching background which is going to work well in recruiting, training and retaining talented lawyers.”

Cantorna has been a defense attorney for 27 years and has taught law for 17 years at “Trial Lawyer’s College,” which holds short courses for practicing attorneys. Cantorna is also a Certified Public Accountant, which he says will help him manage the office efficiently.

Cantorna says he’ll bring integrity back to the office and points to lawsuits initiated by Parks Miller.

“We have three lawsuits pending in three different courts that relate to the district attorney,” Cantorna said. “It ties up resources and it’s costing potentially Centre County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But Parks Miller says Cantorna is the one voters should be concerned about.

“The only thing that’s ever happened to me in my career was a disruption by Bernie Cantorna,” Parks Miller said. “In 2015, he falsely accused me of forgery and I fought back.”

Parks Miller said Cantorna and other lawyers teamed up with a paralegal from the DA’s office to allege Parks Miller forged a judge’s signature. The state attorney general’s office, under Kathleen Kane, investigated. Two handwriting experts said it was not a forgery and the AG’s office cleared Parks Miller. She said Cantorna was planning her ouster even then.

“He did it so that when election time came around people would remember the dust-up. Well the dust-up happened and I was innocent,” Parks Miller said. “It’s the dirtiest, cheapest election ploy ever.”

She sued those involved in initiating the investigation: the former paralegal; Centre County’s commissioners, administrator and solicitor, and Centre County itself; a judge; and several defense lawyers, including her Democratic primary rival, Bernie Cantorna. A federal judge dismissed Parks Miller’s lawsuit, calling it “inartful” and “vitriolic.”

Parks Miller has been a lawyer for 23 years and a prosecutor for 13, experience she hopes will win over voters. She says Cantorna’s inexperience would hurt victims. And she says the fact that she’s tough on criminals is the reason these defense attorneys want her out of office.

“You know, I’m not part of their little group. I came in as an independent, out of nowhere, and that’s why they don’t like me. Because I don’t let them come in my office and schmooze me for backdoor deals,” Parks Miller said. “And if our community doesn’t value that, then we’ll see that on Tuesday. And it will go right back to the way it used to be, where those same people make the same deals and the same criminals get soft treatment.”

Parks Miller says she does believe in rehabilitating criminals, and she’s a founder of the new drug court for offenders who are addicts. But after cracking down on a work release program she said was “out of control” when she came into office, the county website now shows that only one person out of 277 in the jail is on work release. Cantorna — who is also running on a platform of rehabbing criminals — says that’s not enough.

And some local lawyers say Parks Miller uses cases for her own gain. State College attorney Kathleen Yurchak gives the example of a man who shot his dog, which kept killing chickens. Yurchak says Parks Miller talked the judge into using a felony from the 70s as reason to give Barry Grove 5-10 years in prison.

“And the reason we believe she did that is she used Barry as a poster child on her Facebook and on her political material to make herself look good,” Yurchak said. “And we all believe that’s wrong. It does not serve our community.”

Yurchak said another issue for her is texting. A Right to Know request released phone records that showed Parks Miller texted frequently with a judge, sometimes while he was on the bench. The content of the texts was not released and Parks Miller denied talking about cases. The judge was eventually removed from hearing criminal cases and he pulled out of a reelection run.

Since there’s no Republican running, this slugfest will likely end with Tuesday’s election. Though there’s been some effort by both Cantorna and Parks Miller to get Republicans to write in their names. So a general election rematch is not out of the question.

The primary polls are open across central Pennsylvania Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Other races on the ballot include statewide judge races, school board races and municipal council races. Visit the WPSU website for interviews with State College mayoral candidates Don Hahn, Janet Engeman and Michael Black(WPSU contacted Catherine Dauler for an interview but she declined, saying her schedule did not allow time to talk with us.)