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Judicial conduct board files complaint against Monongahela district judge

March 31, 2017 GMT

A Monongahela district judge faces possible sanctions if charges related to an improper use of monetary bond - including in a case where the city’s mayor, Robert L. Kepics, was a defendant - is upheld.District Judge Mark Wilson “engaged in conduct so extreme that it brought disrepute upon the judicial office itself,” according to a 31-page complaint filed by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board. Because of the complaint, President Judge Katherine B. Emery Thursday barred Wilson from presiding over criminal cases, noting she found it “in the best interest of judicial administration to temporarily remove” Wilson from handling such a docket. The president judge ordered that charges filed by Monongahela and New Eagle police go to Peters Township District Judge James Ellis and Carroll Township and Donora criminal cases be filed with District Judge Larry Hopkins of Charleroi.If a court of judicial discipline determines any of the charges against Wilson have been proven, he faces censure, suspension, fine or removal from office.Two phone calls in late business hours to Wilson’s magisterial office went unanswered Thursday. Kepics’ attorney, Christopher D. Carusone of Harrisburg could not be reached Thursday evening for comment.Robert A. Graci, chief counsel for the board, noted in a brief news release Wilson is presumed innocent.The case against the mayor goes back to a personal loan made to Kepics.According to the complaint, Kepics’ parents were neighbors and close friends of John and Shirley Amon of New Eagle. On April 26, 2011, the Amons agreed to personally loan Kepics $3,935 so he could pay the taxes on his parents’ home and for other expenses. Kepics repaid $1,600 between Nov. 29, 2011, and Sept. 12, 2012.As of Dec. 4, 2012, Kepics owed $2,335, and John Amon went to Wilson asking how to collect the remainder of the debt. Wilson advised Amon he could file a civil complaint or private criminal complaint. The Judicial Conduct Board called this an “ex parte” conversation with Amon in which Wilson failed to conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.Amon chose the criminal route and obtained a form from district court, filling it out with a charge of theft by deception. An employee told Amon the district attorney’s office must approve private criminal complaints before they are filed. Wilson asked then-Assistant District Attorney Joseph A. Carroll to review it, with the two exchanging text messages in addition to discussing the matter more than once by phone, according to the complaint.Carroll is alleged to have told Wilson the complaint seemed to be a civil case, but that there might be criminal aspects. Wilson, according to the judicial conduct board, told Carroll Kepics repaid the Amons only $400, Kepics was avoiding the Amons, “and that the Amons were good people and that he wanted to help them out.” This conduct also deviated from the impartiality that is expected of a member of the judiciary, the Judicial Conduct Board alleged.Carroll approved the private criminal complaint. Based on the amount of money enumerated, the theft by deception charge was a third-degree felony. Wilson’s office manager immediately contacted Constable Walter P. Fronzaglio and told him Wilson needed to see him “right away.” When Fronzaglio arrived, Wilson, seated at his official bench, handed the constable an arrest warrant for Kepics and used profanity while yelling Kepics should be hauled into court because Wilson wanted to “teach him a ------- lesson,” according to the complaint.Fronzaglio found Kepics in the municipal building and placed him under arrest, taking him to Wilson’s office for arraignment. Wilson set Kepics’ bond at $5,000 knowing the mayor and his wife would be unable to post it on the spot and disregarding 11 factors set out in the state’s Rules of Criminal Procedure, such as prior criminal record or lack thereof, and failing to focus on the likelihood that Kepics would appear at court proceedings.In a deposition Wilson gave to the Judicial Conduct Board last year, he said his decision on bail was “typical... It was a theft. When there’s elderly people involved it’s just what I do.” The deposition further quotes Wilson as not considering Kepics’ reputation, how long he had lived in the community where he served as mayor and whether Kepics seemed to be a flight risk.Wilson directed Fronzaglio to take Kepics to Washington County jail, and the district judge later asked the constable if the mayor had called Wilson any names, again using profanity against Kepics. Wilson should have recused himself from the case of Commonwealth vs. Kepics, according to the Judicial Conduct Board’s complaint.Mrs. Kepics arranged for bond and the mayor was released from jail the same day as his arrest. Three days later, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone sent a letter to Wilson stating he was withdrawing the criminal charge of theft by deception because of a lack of criminal intent. “Vittone considered the personal loan between the Amons and Kepics to be a civil matter,” according to the 31-page document filed by the Judicial Conduct Board.The complaint also found issues with $5,000 bail Wilson proposed in welfare fraud cases in 2013 and 2015. In the earlier case, Vittone “indicated he would withdraw the case to prevent the defendants’ incarceration.” Wilson then agreed to set an unsecured monetary bond. The Judicial Conduct Board also cited 11 cases that included theft, retail thefts, theft of services, bad checks and welfare fraud in which Wilson failed to consider criteria for release when setting $5,000 monetary bonds, claiming Wilson “failed to be faithful to the law and maintain competence in it.“The Judicial Conduct Board’s complaint alleges violations of the rules governing standards of conduct of magisterial district judges and the Pennsylvania Constitution. The board’s investigation began with a confidential request in 2013, and it determined there was probable cause to file formal charges against Wilson.Standards changed in 2014, so some of the alleged judicial misconduct is related to the prior law while newer standards apply to other parts of the case.Kepics did not return a call for comment Thursday night. In 2015, a federal court judge dismissed a false arrest suit Kepics filed against Wilson and Vittone. U.S. Judge Mark Hornak ruled Wilson was covered by “the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity” and decided there was no reason to include Vittone in the suit because he did not approve the charge filed against the mayor. Kepics claimed he was a victim of malicious prosecution was also thrown out. In a news story written that year, Wilson called Kepics’ lawsuit “frivolous action.” Vittone maintained he had done the right thing in withdrawing the charge against Kepics.Kepics made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination and a chance to succeed retiring State Rep. Peter J. Daley last year in the 49th Legislative District.Wilson cross-filed earlier this month as a candidate for an additional six-year term as district judge in the May 16th primary, a position that pays $89,438.