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AG Wants Judge Taken Off Prison Sex Abuse Case

November 3, 2018

Lackawanna County Judge Trish Corbett is hindering the investigation into sexual abuse at Lackawanna County Prison by refusing to be interviewed about a letter she received from a former inmate who alleged she was sexually harassed, the state attorney general’s office says in a court motion. Deputy Attorney General Rebecca Elo says she wants to speak to Corbett about the 2005 letter, which she says is a key piece of evidence because it helps corroborate the inmate’s claims. The woman is among the victims identified in charges filed against six former guards in February. Corbett has refused to do so, citing judicial rules that preclude a judge from privately discussing matters about a case over which she is presiding. The allegations are contained in a motion Elo filed last week asking Corbett to recuse herself from presiding over the case of Jeffrey Staff, one of the guards awaiting trial. Corbett on Friday adamantly denied she has done anything to hinder the investigation. “I’m a former prosecutor of sexual abuse cases. By no means am I trying to hinder any prosecution or defense in this case,” she said. The issue centers on a letter written by former inmate Jamie Tompkins. In an interview last November, Tompkins said she wrote to Corbett about being sexually abused at the prison, but nothing was ever done. By policy, The Citizens’ Voice does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Tompkins agreed to be identified. Two former guards, James Walsh and Paul Voglino, are awaiting trial on charges they sexually abused Tompkins. Staff is not charged with abusing Tompkins, but prosecutors said she will be called as a witness. In the recusal motion, Elo says the letter is important because it shows Tompkins promptly reported the abuse. That speaks to her credibility, which has been challenged by defense attorneys. Elo said Corbett may be called as a witness in the cases against Tompkins’ alleged abusers and/or some of the other victims. She said Corbett’s refusal to be interviewed “is causing a delay in the investigation and is hampering the need to obtain all necessary evidence.” Corbett acknowledged she has declined to speak to investigators, but said that is because the attorney general’s office told her only that it wanted to speak to her about “an investigation our office is conducting” regarding the prison. Because she is assigned to one of the cases, she felt that would be improper. Under judicial ethics rules, a judge cannot speak privately with an attorney representing either side in a civil or criminal matter outside the presence of the attorney for the opposing party. That is known as an ex parte communication. Corbett said she consulted the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Gregory Dunlap, chief counsel for the AOPC, agreed Corbett would violate rules regarding ex parte communications if she spoke to investigators. Contacted Friday, Dunlap said investigators told him they wanted to speak to Corbett because they were seeking her recusal. He said Tompkins’ letter was mentioned as a basis for the recusal, but he was not advised investigators wanted to talk to Corbett as a potential witness. “The request they made to interview her was clearly in connection to the case that was pending before her,” Dunlap said. “It would be unethical for her to speak to them about anything related to the case without the other side knowing about it.” Dunlap said should Corbett recuse herself from presiding over Staff’s case, it is possible the attorney general’s office could then interview her as a witness. Corbett scheduled a hearing on the recusal motion for Nov. 28. This will be the second time Corbett addresses the issue. Earlier this year, Elo verbally requested Corbett recuse herself, but the judge declined. Corbett said she agrees she could not preside over any case in which Tompkins is the victim. Staff’s case is different because Tompkins is a witness. “If they are concerned about me judging credibility, a judge in a criminal trial does not judge the credibility of a witness. That’s left to the jury,” she said. Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137 @tmbeseckerTT