County payment of DA challenge legal bills questioned

County commissioners last month approved a $63,000 payment to a law firm which represented District Attorney Marion O’Malley after consulting with attorneys and deciding in the long run it would save taxpayer money.

The county faced the bill from the Kleinbard LLC law firm as a result of an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by former assistant district attorney William C. Urbanski, who claimed he automatically became district attorney after the untimely death of District Attorney Robert Klein in 2017.

The case went as far the state supreme court but Urbanski lost his challenge when the courts ruled that he failed to satisfy a county residency requirement.

At the commissioner’s Jan. 8 meeting, Colleen Wilkes of Lanesboro questioned Commissioner Chair Elizabeth Arnold about the payment.

“It was taxpayer money.  I think it should be discussed.  That’s a lot of money,” Wilkes said. 

“I don’t think it’s fair for the taxpayers have to pay her bill,” Wilkes said in a later telephone interview, referring to the O’Malley legal bill.

 O’Malley was appointed to the spot in February 2018 and won election to the position last year.  Urbanski, the former head of the Luzerne County Republican Party, appeared on the May 2019 primary election ballot but lost to O’Malley, also a Republican, 1,722 to 3,709 votes.

County Commissioner Alan Hall said, “We went to our local attorney and he said that we should pay it.  We went to a state attorney, an attorney who works for CCAP (County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania) who works throughout the entire state, and they said the same thing; that it would be in the county’s best interest to pay it.”

After two Right to Know Law requests seeking more information on Kleinbard’s invoice and an outstanding $500 balance Urbanski owes to the county elections office were presented to the county, the county responded by saying the matter has been referred to their attorney and that an answer may take as long as 30 days.

Attempts to reach Urbanski at his law firm, family farm and through Facebook and an intermediary were unsuccessful.

O’Malley, interviewed in her office earlier this week, emphasized that until she formally became a county employee after her swearing in on February 5, 2018, she paid her own way, and that after becoming a county employee, paying became the county’s responsibility. O’Malley said that her name was chosen from a list of five applicants and that any of them would have found themselves in the same situation.

“The courts made a determination that Judge Legg’s ruling was correct.  I go back to the main issue — the individual who was sworn in would have faced this issue,” O’Malley said.

The county originally refused to take a side in the dispute, Hall said.

“The law says that if you’re an elected official, and somebody challenges that position, the county is responsible for paying the legal fees.  However, in this case she was not elected, she was appointed, which is another grey area,” he said.

Hall said that former county solicitor Michael Giangreco, who would normally represent the county in court, did not appear on behalf of the county because O’Malley hired the Kleinbard firm while still a private attorney.

Earlier this month commissioners voted 2-1 against retaining Giangreco, himself a former county commissioner, with Hall casting the dissenting vote.

O’Malley’s appointment as district attorney came four years after her first attempt at gaining the office.  O’Malley served as a deputy for former district attorney Jason Legg, who in 2015 ran and won election as judge.  O’Malley then ran for his spot.   (O’Malley’s father, Donald, who passed in 2001, was also both Susquehanna District Attorney and county judge.) That year O’Malley lost to Klein, then an assistant prosecutor in Lackawanna County, in the May primary by a mere 36 votes. 

In a November 18, 2019, letter to commissioners, her attorney Matthew H. Haverstick urged commissioners to settle the bill by the end of that year.

“Future district attorney’s [sic] — or, in fact other row officers, might be discouraged from running for office if they believed they would not be indemnified for lawsuits brought against them in their official capacity,” Haverstick wrote.

Urbanski had himself sworn into office in January 2018 in Rice Twp., Luzerne County, even after Legg told him he would not recognize him as the district attorney and that he planned to appoint a successor. 

But Senior Judge David E. Grime ruled in April 2018 that because Urbanski, a resident of Luzerne County, failed to satisfy the law’s residency requirement because he hadn’t lived in Susquehanna County for at least a year.  An appeal to the state supreme court didn’t change Grime’s ruling.  Urbanski, the former head of the Luzerne County GOP, started work as an assistant district attorney in Susquehanna County in February of 2016.

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