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DuBois paid more than $307,000 in legal fees related to city manager corruption investigation, records show

The municipal building of the City of DuBois, Pennsylvania.
Min Xian
Spotlight PA
The municipal building of the City of DuBois, Pennsylvania.

A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

STATE COLLEGE — DuBois has spent at least $274,00 in taxpayer money to cover the legal bills of former City Manager Herm Suplizio, who is accused of stealing roughly double that amount from the Pennsylvania city, its annual festival, and a local nonprofit over nearly a decade.

The city has also spent more than $32,000 on legal representation for other people associated with DuBois who were interviewed as part of the corruption probe.

City Council approved the payment for Suplizio’s legal defense during its March 27, 2023, public meeting by a 4 to 1 vote and without discussion. Two council members who voted in favor declined Spotlight PA’s request to comment on that decision, and the other two did not respond.

Matt Creme, a municipal lawyer, told Spotlight PA that providing legal representation at the city’s expense for witnesses is much different than providing it for an employee who is under investigation for wrongdoing.

Although it’s within DuBois City Council’s power to make the decision, “it’s highly unusual” for the city to cover Suplizio’s legal defense based on the allegations brought against him, said Jill Nagy, who practices Pennsylvania municipal law.

Spotlight PA tallied the numbers from legal bills DuBois provided after the newsroom won an appeal on an open records request, which was originally submitted in August 2023 but initially denied by the city.

The state attorney general’s office arrested Suplizio in March. They alleged he stole more than $550,000 in public and nonprofit funds over nearly a decade. The Pittsburgh-based law firm formerly known as Reisinger Comber & Miller began representing Suplizio almost a year before that, in April 2022, according to invoices. That was when state prosecutors and Pennsylvania State Police served a search warrant on DuBois City Hall.

Attorneys worked on Suplizio’s case for nearly a year, according to the latest available invoice. Records show that the city’s last payment for Suplizio’s legal bills covered fees incurred through March 22, 2023, two days after his arrest. The total cost for his legal representation from April 2022 to March 2023 was $274,409.85.

The invoices provided no itemized description of the attorneys’ work, but showed the matter at hand was “OAG / PSP Invstg” — referring to the criminal investigation.

The city also paid four other law firms in DuBois and State College for legal services for four other individuals in 2022 related to the investigation into Suplizio.

Records show the legal services provided for former Mayor Edward Walsh and firefighters Jeff Baronick, Robert Bojalad, and James Corby — who were not considered city employees, Interim City Manager Chris Nasuti told Spotlight PA — in 2022 cost DuBois $18,827.50.

Bojalad served as treasurer for the DuBois Volunteer Fire Department, and Corby was a former fire chief. Prosecutors alleged Suplizio leveraged his affiliation with the fire department to steal from the annual festival associated with it. Their testimonies regarding the structure of the fire department and its finances appeared in the affidavit of probable cause when prosecutors announced charges in March. The invoices said expenses included meetings and interviews with attorneys, conferences with prosecutors, and “joint defense” discussions.

At its Dec. 26 meeting, DuBois City Council also approved an additional $13,806.90 in legal fee payment, Nasuti wrote in an email. That money paid the legal bills for Walsh, Public Works Superintendent Scott Farrell, and Finance Officer DeLean Shepherd when they appeared before a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh in November 2023.

Although DuBois was not named as a defendant in either the state or federal indictment, former City Solicitor Toni Cherry has repeatedly said paying for personnel’s legal expenses related to the investigation is reasonable. In a November public meeting, Cherry said the legal services are covering “people who, really through no fault of their own, are being dragged into this.”

“We want to make sure that they’re protected,” she said, according to meeting minutes.

The corruption case against Suplizio was one of the most expansive in the state Office of Attorney General’s recent history. Federal authorities took over the case in November. Suplizio did not enter a plea in the state case, but pleaded not guilty for the federal charges.

DuBois City Council swore in three new members at its Jan. 2 reorganization meeting. Newly elected Mayor Pat Reasinger and council members Jennifer Jackson and Elliot Gelfand voted to accept resignation from Gleason, Cherry & Cherry as the city’s solicitor and to terminate Suplizio’s employment with DuBois. He had been on paid administrative leave since March 2023.

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Min Xian reports on how local governments are run and how public dollars are spent, with a focus on how public and private forces shape ordinary life in this region.