KEISLING: Rolf Larsen conviction and impeachment, 1994

NewsLanc Editor:  This is another excerpt from the book on corruption in Pennsylvania government and media that writer Bill Keisling is preparing for publication later in 2017  (Or so we hope.)  Upon publication, the book will substantiate why Pennsylvania is currently rated among the most corrupt states in the Union.  Things have not changed much and, in some communities, Lancaster especially — they have become far worse.

 

By Bill Keisling

 

The impeachment of state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was the last great scandal of the pre-Internet age. Pennsylvanians were kept in the dark and ill served by complicit state media.

The Rolf Larsen impeachment scandal of the mid-1990s illustrated the growing inability of Pennsylvania state government to honestly address its problems.

In the Larsen scandal we see the leadership of both political parties happily corrupted by the influence of bond underwriters and bad courts, and more than willing to ignore and cover-up growing corruption with the help of the state’s media.

We’ve come to expect corrupt government and politicians in Pennsylvania.

What became so unusual and dangerous in the long-running Larsen saga was the willing participation of the state’s media to obscure the politicians’ corruption and dishonesty. But that’s precisely what the Philadelphia Inquirer did. The Inquirer became, more than ever, an insiders’ tool for propagating and protecting corruption and bad government.

At the time, in the mid-1990s, Pennsylvania’s citizens had no alternative to the century-old monopoly newspapers. With the advent of the Internet, the corrupting influence of the Inquirer would begin to lessen, if slowly.

The roots of the Larsen impeachment scandal are well documented. The cover-up is not.

State Supreme Court Justice Larsen’s problems with the media, the courts and the politicians date from his ascent to the high court in the late 1970s.

The impeachment scandal began when Larsen filed court papers in late 1992 accusing his fellow Justices Stephen Zappala and Ralph Cappy of fixing court cases. Larsen was seeking a review of a reprimand he accused the Justices Zappala and Cappy of having unfairly voted to lodge against him.

Larsen’s accusations were quickly met with spirited denials from many in political and court circles.

As for the Inquirer, Larsen was suing the newspaper for libel. The paper’s managers decided not even to consider Larsen allegations of court corruption and skullduggery, let alone to investigate them. The Inquirer’s editors instead decided to trash Justice Larsen in order to help their own court case. They reasoned they would not be blamed for destroying the reputation of the only judge to be impeached in Pennsylvania since 1811.

So the Inquirer early on threw in with the state’s compromised politicians and judges to destroy Larsen once and for all. This is how the Inquirer would operate in future cases.

In December 1992, more than a year before Larsen’s conviction on the drug charges, the Inquirer laid out what would happen.

On December 31, 1992, the Inquirer published an article by Stuart Ditzen and Emily Lounsberry, headlined, “Sources say Justice Larsen Could Face More Severe Discipline — Even Removal.”

The article began by reporting that Larsen “could be removed from the bench as a result of his own request for review of a disciplinary case against him, according to sources close to the court.” The prospect of Larsen’s removal seems not to trouble the Inquirer at all, which seems odd, since newspapers usually are seen as having an interest in defending whistleblowers. Here the Inquirer acts almost as a cheerleader for punishing the loudmouth.

The Inquirer quoted an unidentified source as saying that Larsen’s political enemies would “bounce him like a basketball.”

A second unidentified source was quoted as saying that Larsen, in requesting reconsideration of his reprimand, had “fashioned the club that beats him to death.”

Some of these Inquirer quotes from anonymous sources sounded, to my ear, to have the clipped sentences favored by Justice Zappala, and I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought so. The first week of the New Year 1993 Larsen filed a court petition accusing Zappala and Cappy as being the only possible sources of the Inquirer’s article(s), demonstrating, Larsen wrote, that his two antagonists had adopted a “judicially vindictive and retaliatory posture” against him. The Inquirer, not necessarily denying the charge, pointed out that Larsen had as yet failed to provide evidence supporting any of his earlier charges.

The newspaper further took Larsen to task for repeating rumors that Justice Zappala wore a body wire to surreptitiously record conversations. From here out the Inquirer would make it part of its regular menu to attack Larsen’s supposed repeating of “rumors,” which precisely is what the Inquirer had been doing. It’s hard to recall another instance of an American newspaper attacking rumormongering. Lumps of rumor and personal attacks liberally spiced with innuendo and, some have successfully complained to juries, red-hot libel — these historically had become the Philadelphia Inquirer’s stock-in-trade. The Inquirer seemed upset that a justice should sink to its level.

More importantly, at this early, crucial juncture, before a serious investigation had even begun, a healthy taste of Larsen’s blood was already in the water. Larsen’s removal was already being widely foretold in the Inky pages. The implication was that Larsen’s basic charge of favoritism on the court wasn’t even worthy of serious public consideration.

Meanwhile, on January 11, 1993, the Inquirer’s see-no-official-evil team of reporters Ditzen and Lounsberry filed another in their steady stream of puff pieces, this time on behalf two special prosecutors, Ed Dennis and James Tierney.

Shortly after Larsen made his accusations, state Attorney General Ernie Preate appointed the two special prosecutors, Ed Dennis and James Tierney, to supposedly investigate Larsen’s charges.

“Their charge from me is to go wherever the evidence leads,” Preate told reporters. “Let the chips fall where they may. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is preordained. There will be no whitewash.” He added, “We anticipate it’s going to be a long, drawn-out and difficult investigation and it’s going to raise questions of the greatest magnitude.” All this would turn out to be balderdash. Preate’s “investigation” would turn out to be a sham.

The Inquirer quoted one official as saying the investigators would have a budget that would start at about $200,000. It would turn out that Dennis alone would make that much. The entire investigation, before it had run its course, would cost nearly five times that — almost a million dollars, mostly to the overpaid lawyers.

“Our charge is to follow the evidence wherever it goes, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Tierney told the Inquirer in its January 11 article.

“Dennis will focus primarily on criminal allegations, and Tierney on whether there have been ethical violations,” the Inquirer informed readers. “Both said they were determined to show their investigation is impartial and thorough, without political considerations.”

“‘We’re here to stay,’ said Tierney. ‘We’re going to work hard. We’re going to find out everything we can and we’re going to call it straight.”

Here the Inquirer specifically mentioned, among other things, Larsen’s allegations that Justice Zappala had displayed favoritism on the bench by having “guided” cases with connections to his brother’s bonding business in a “special” manner.

“We’re moving on a lot of fronts at the same time,” Dennis told the Inquirer.

“We’re touching every base. There are some things coming over the transom and we’re not ignoring it.”

The Inquirer informed readers “Dennis and Tierney urged anyone who had information relevant to their inquiry to contact them. The information, they said, would be treated confidentially.

“‘We want to hear from people in the state,’ said Tierney.”

The boundaries of the inquiry wouldn’t necessarily stop with Larsen’s allegations, Inquirer readers were told. “Dennis said that, depending on what they learn, the investigation could broaden.”

To read all this one would suppose Pennsylvanians were about to get a thorough, no-holds-barred investigation of their high court.

I would soon learn, however, that Preate’s special prosecutors had no intention of following through on their promise.

One thing was certain: our state’s largest newspaper already had a cozy and non-critical working relationship with the special prosecutors — if not others.

Not long after the appointment of the special prosecutors, I got a call from Ed Dennis’s secretary, who asked me to overnight a copy of my book on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, When the Levee Breaks, to co-investigator James Tierney at his address in Maine.

I’d interviewed dozens of employees at the turnpike, at all levels of the organization, for my book.

Turnpike administrators complained to me about a case brought against the turnpike by one of its construction contractors, Wagman of York.

In 1989 Justice Zappala intervened in the Wagman case at the request of his former law partner and family friend, Turnpike Commissioner James Dodaro. Bonds sold by Justice Zappala’s brother financed the turnpike project at the center of the case.

So when Larsen complained in court filings about Zappala’s activities, there was hope that cases like Wagman v. Pennsylvania Turnpike would be examined.

The book was selling well, and lots of people in and out of government were reading it. So I sent a copy to Tierney, as I was asked to do. Decades later I still have the tracking receipt.

Months went by. My book kept selling, and I kept busy. I heard nothing about the grand jury investigation. There were no trembles on my web.

One day news came over the radio that the investigation into the state Supreme Court had been completed, and that the grand jury would hand in its report in a day or two. The report said the investigators found no evidence of case-fixing on the high court, and that Larsen would be prosecuted for taking drugs without a prescription, and his impeachment would be recommended. Though the report on Larsen’s drug usage was shocking, it certainly wasn’t a surprise.

Over the summer, on August 3, 1993, the Inquirer ran a story titled “Jury looks into Rxs for Larsen.” “Investigators conducting the criminal inquiry of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are examining whether Justice Rolf Larsen obtained prescription drugs through his employees, according to court system sources,” began the article. Wonder wonder who leaked this to the Inquirer?

I began checking around and learned that the investigators hadn’t spoken with the turnpike’s attorneys about the Wagman case. They hadn’t even asked.

Preate’s staff ended up refusing to investigate Wagman, or to even interview appropriate parties familiar with the case. No use having a case that might prove Justice Larsen correct. I had to wonder what else AG Preate’s staff, and the Inquirer, were overlooking.

Perhaps that was to be expected.

By 1992 – 93, there was a growing body of evidence that Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate was a crook. Today, in retrospect, we can be certain that Preate was a crook.

AG Preate was dishonest, and on his way to federal prison for covering up political corruption like this. This is what happens, after all, when the fox is charged with protecting the hen house.

Throughout the impeachment ordeal to follow, curiously, the Inquirer would point out that our state’s high court had been plagued for decades by controversy, and that the court was the object of almost continuous allegations of inferiority and favoritism. Yet the newspaper’s staff obviously didn’t think Larsen’s charges should be taken seriously. Here Pennsylvanians had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look into, and perhaps reform, their high court. But the Inquirer, for reasons of its own pique and finances, cooperated with state leaders to ensure that that investigation, and that reform, would never happen.

On March 2, 1993, the Inquirer ran an article that helped to explain their method of cover-up, and which served to apologize for AG Preate’s sham investigation at the same time.

The article took Justice Larsen to task for the exact wording of his complaints against Zappala. The newspaper would totally ignore the spirit of the complaint and, like the special prosecutors, would time and again refuse to look into other curious cases, such as the Wagman case, in which Zappala had intervened on behalf of the Pennsylvania turnpike.

In his recusal motion Larsen accused Justice Zappala of “guiding” cases in a special manner so that Russell, Rea Zappala & Gomulka (RRZ&G)-issued bonds were rescued from risk, to the financial benefit of Justice Zappala, who, Larsen alleged, received “indirect” kickbacks through layered corporations. Larsen, in the end, would be judged by the most literal, strictest definition of those words. Had he’d alleged Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two, God help him if that mossy-green Atlantic wasn’t blue.

Charles Zappala and his colleagues at RRZ&G “emphatically deny any tie, other than by family relationship, between their firm and Justice Zappala,” the March 2 Inquirer article read.

“In recent interviews, the RRZ&G executives said the justice had no role in any of their far-flung businesses or partnerships — all privately held — which include hydroelectric plants, landfills, cable television and real estate holdings.

“‘Absolutely, unequivocally, definitively none,’ said Charles Zappala.” Such trust by this time had already been developed between bond underwriter and big city daily that the Inquirer was even allowed to go through RRZ&G business records. “The firm last week made available to The Inquirer for review a list of its enterprises — 21 corporations and 12 partnerships — and the principals and shareholders in them. (Justice) Stephen Zappala’s name did not appear.”

The Inquirer reported that Justice Zappala’s financial statement filed with the state listed him as holding bonds issued by Allegheny County, Lackawanna County and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was A Family Affair. The bonds, we’d later find out, were sold, at market value, to Justice Zappala and his wife by their son, Gregory.

Gregory Zappala would return to the news in the 2000s. By that time he’d be co-owner of private detention facilities that bribed Luzerne County judges in the Kids for Cash scandal. In that memorable scandal more than six thousand kids were sold down the river to the detention facility without proper due process. In the Kids for Cash scandal, Gregory Zappala’s lawyers would say he had no idea $2.67 million of his company’s money had been misused to bribe state judges. Gregory Zappala himself was a victim of the scandal, his lawyers would say. Gregory Zappala would not be charged in the Cash for Kids scandal.

But let’s consider one Zappala scandal at a time.

Back in 1993, the Inquirer noted, “One of Justice Zappala’s sons, Gregory, is director of public finance at RRZ&G with responsibilities for developing business for the firm. Another son, Stephen Jr., a Pittsburgh lawyer, formerly worked as a consultant for the firm.”

(Stephen Jr. was later appointed district attorney of Allegheny County, in 1997, by a special vote of judges. As Wikipedia notes, “In December 1997, then-District Attorney Robert Colville announced he was leaving the position to become judge on the Court of Common Pleas. Zappala was appointed by the Allegheny County’s Common Pleas judges with 22 votes. His primary rival for the position, W. Christopher Conrad, received 6 votes. Shortly after his 1998 swearing-in as District Attorney, Zappala fired Conrad, who had been working in the District Attorney’s office as lead homicide prosecutor. Stephen Jr. would run unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2016.)

When the special prosecutors’ grand jury report was finally released at the end of 1993, no mention would be made of the turnpike’s Wagman case. It had been covered up.

It would turn out the Inquirer, and finally the special prosecutors, would only look into the two specific cases mentioned by Larsen in his court papers — the PLRB case involving the city of Philadelphia, and the Port Authority case involving Allegheny County.

Preate and his special prosecutors chose instead, perhaps also predictably, to manipulate a grand jury into charging Larsen with sixteen counts of unlawfully obtaining anti-depressant medications, including Valium and Prozac. They were making Larsen out to be paranoid, and crazy. Shades of Stalin in Pennsylvania.

Shortly after the drug charges were filed by the attorney general’s office in late 1993 Larsen was suspended from the court.

Preate’s criminal charges cleared the way for Larsen’s legislative impeachment.

That would leave two possible avenues for Larsen’s allegations to be heard, at least in theory: in the legislature, and in the state press.

Justice Larsen’s allegations about case fixing supposedly would be investigated by both houses of the state legislature in impeachment proceedings, as grounds for his possible removal from office. But I didn’t hold out much hope.

Legislative leaders in both political parties were receiving large political donations from the bond underwriters involved in the controversy. They had no incentive to be honest, and plenty of incentive to cover-up, and to silence Larsen.

That left, as a watchdog, Pennsylvania’s capital press corps, God help us.

Unfortunately, as I’d learn, Pennsylvania’s largest newspapers and wire service decided to help the politicians destroy Larsen, for their own ends. This would put the state’s largest newspapers at odds with the public interest.

What this contagion called for, of course, was sunlight. If the state’s newspapers would run a story about the Wagman case perhaps it would force a look at the case, I thought.

In the 1990s there were perhaps only three outlets with the muscle and visibility to force Preate and Dennis to do an honest job: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Inquirer, and the Associated Press.

That meant trouble. The Inquirer more and more was seen as a mouthpiece for party leaders and insiders, as its coverage demonstrated.

The Post-Gazette had problems of its own. At the time the Pittsburgh paper was recuperating from a debilitating labor strike. For some time the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette had been sharing resources such as presses under a government approved joint operating agreement — a waiver from anti-trust laws. On May 17, 1992, the Teamster’s Local 211 struck the Press and other unions walked out. The Post-Gazette’s staff, including reporters, was laid off, and neither paper was published for the remainder of 1992. In the end the Press was destroyed, bought out by the Post-Gazette under a renewed government stamp of approval. The first paper published by the new Post-Gazette hit the streets January 18, 1993, in the middle of a historic Supreme Court flap that, after all, was centered in Pittsburgh. Even after the strike the newspaper seemed slow to recover. “It was a little rough at first,” a Post-Gazette staffer confided to me. “There were lots of problems.”

The reconstituted Pittsburgh paper really didn’t seem to be all there. Truth be told, neither of the state’s remaining big city dailies was what it once was. Then there was the never-spoken matter of the defamation suit Larsen had filed against both the Inquirer and the Post-Gazette. Could these guardians of truth, justice and objectivity be expected to ride to the rescue?

Of course not. That left the wire service.

So I called the Associated Press. At the time, the bureau chief in the state capitol newsroom in Harrisburg was longtime reporter Rich Kirkpatrick. I explained to Kirkpatrick that turnpike attorneys had expressed concern that Justice Zappala had intervened on the Wagman case for them, and the duly appointed investigators refused to even ask the staff attorneys about the case. Could Kirkpatrick send a reporter to Commonwealth Court to see the file on the Wagman case? I asked.

“I don’t have the resources to do that,” he told me. I pointed out it was only a three-minute walk from the AP’s capitol office to the court prothonotary in the state’s South Office Building, next door.

He said they were busy, and didn’t have a reporter to spare to send on a three-minute walk. (To this day the AP shares office space with the Inquirer and other papers in the capitol pressroom.) I should try to get the Inquirer or the Post-Gazette to pick up the story, Kirkpatrick told me. They had the resources, he said. If one of the AP’s subscribing newspapers ran the story, the AP would pick it up, he told me.

Didn’t Kirkpatrick realize they were about to prosecute Larsen for drug use? I asked him. Didn’t he realize this would be the first impeachment of a judge in our state in more than one hundred and eighty years? Couldn’t he spare a three-minute walk to weigh for himself whether the prosecutors were ignoring evidence? I asked.

Kirkpatrick repeated he didn’t have the resources.

For the fun of it, if nothing else, I called the Inquirer, and was ultimately routed (God help me) to reporter Emilie Lounsberry, who’d gone into the tank for more than a year now with her fellow Inky reporter Stuart Ditzen to write articles that were extremely critical of Larsen, and which made light of his allegations of corruption on the high court.

Lounsberry on the phone sounded oh-so bored. You could almost hear her filing her nails. She said she didn’t need to see no stinking court documents. She said she wasn’t interested in any story about case fixing on the state Supreme Court. She said she wasn’t interested in talking to turnpike attorneys about any case Justice Zappala may or may not have fixed for them. She said she didn’t want a copy of my book. I thanked her for her undivided attention, and hoped I wouldn’t get a bill for her time. No doubt she was too busy filing a story about whether Larsen should be impaled, pickled or merely drawn and quartered, his flesh separated, singed, peppered and stretched over lamp shades, and there was no use lousing up a whole year’s worth of stories she’d already filed, no use letting reality get in the way of a good smear. She’d already invested quite a bit of blindness and lack of effort to get things bubbling this far.

Besides, the comrades at the Politburo hadn’t given Pravda the okay. The struggle after all was against Comrade Larsen, not Comrade Zappala.

All this meant, I knew, that the state’s largest newspapers themselves would, amazingly, throw in with the corrupted politicians to destroy and silence Larsen, even if it meant the newspapers, like reporter Lounsberry, themselves would be agents of cover-up and corruption.

The Larsen impeachment would be the state’s last pre-Internet scandal. Since this was in the 1990s, there was no way around the state’s monopoly newspapers to reach the public.

These sad preliminaries out of the way, Larsen’s historic impeachment unfolded like this:

On April 9 1994 a jury in Allegheny County court convicted Larsen of two counts of conspiracy to violate the Controlled Substances Act, for unlawfully receiving prescription anti-depressant drugs.

Larsen appealed, and refused to resign from the high court.

“Justice Larsen refuses to resign from office, and he leaves us with the distasteful task of impeaching him,” state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Democrat from Reading, told The New York Times in May 1994. Caltagirone was chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee.

It would turn that the impeachment would be a farce, and a dangerous farce at that. Anyone imaging that a legislative impeachment trial would be a good opportunity to find truth, fairness, or evenhanded justice, as perhaps we’ve come expect from an everyday jury trial, would do well to study the impeachment of Rolf Larsen.

The Pennsylvania Constitution spends less than fifty words on the conduct of impeachments. So there’s lots of latitude on how an impeachment may be conducted.

The state constitution reads:

Power of Impeachment 

Section 4.

The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment.
Section 5.

All impeachments shall be tried by the Senate. When sitting for that purpose the Senators shall be upon oath or affirmation. No person shall be convicted without the concurrence of two-thirds of the members present.

This meant that the House members would vote on articles of impeachment, and a trial would be held in the Senate to uphold or dismiss those charges.

The caucuses of both houses of the legislature pretended that all this would be similar to a jury trial.

The House impeachment managers would pretend to be prosecutors, while their counterparts in the Senate would sit in judgment and pretend to be a disinterested jury.

But all that would be a farce. They wouldn’t even have a mechanism to collect evidence, I’d learn. Some trial.

By November 1993, the House adopted Resolution 205, authorizing the Judiciary Committee to “investigate” Larsen’s conduct and determine whether the House should initiate impeachment proceedings. On May 6, 1994, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Court’s issued a report on its “investigation.” Rep. Frank Dermody, who was an embarrassment, chaired the subcommittee.

The subcommittee concocted seven article of impeachment.

Article I accused Larsen of maintaining a special list of allocatur (or appeal) petitions for the benefit of friends and contributors; Article II singled out a pair of allocatur petitions on the special list that involved attorney Richard Gilardi (chairman of the Supreme Court’s attorney disciplinary board), who had ex parte conversations with Justice Larsen about those cases; Article III accused Larsen of perjuring himself before the grand jury by denying that the conversations described in Article II took place; Article IV concerned the ex parte conversations with Judge Eunice Ross that led to Larsen’s recusal petition; Article V accused Justice Larsen of making reckless, unfounded allegations against Justices Cappy and Zappala in his petitions for recusal; Article VI concerned the drug charges; and Article VII was a catch-all, in which it was alleged that the cumulative effect of Justice Larsen’s misbehavior brought the courts of the commonwealth into disrepute.

On May 24, 1994, the full House voted, 199-to-0, to impeach Larsen.

The article of impeachment most interesting involved the allegations about Justice Zappala. You’d imagine if you were going to impeach a judge for making an allegation you’d investigate the facts carefully, collect evidence, and weigh the facts.

Well guess again.

It turned out, not surprisingly, that the politicians in the legislature who were running the impeachment had even less inclination than the state’s newspapers to collect evidence of case fixing on the state Supreme Court.

Outside lawyers, called special counsel, were hired by the General Assembly to conduct the impeachment.

I wrote and telephoned the special counsel — John Moses and J. Clayton Undercofler — and told them about the Wagman case. I heard the stunned silence on the other end of the phone, and then I heard nothing more from them.

(Moses and Undercofler prepared a “Preliminary Report” for release in the spring of 1994. It would more or less be a rehash of Ed Dennis’s whitewash job — highly critical of Justice Larsen and protective of Justice Zappala. The two special counsels prepared to release their report on March 16, 1994, two weeks before Larsen was to go to trial and select a jury on his prescription drug charges. They also planned to release their report more than a month before Larsen would have the opportunity to testify before the subcommittee, on April 21. Under pressure, they would delay release of their preliminary report until after Larsen’s drug trial.)

I visited the offices of the state representatives heading the impeachment — Representatives Frank Dermody, Thomas Caltagirone, and Jeffrey Piccola — and learned that there was no mechanism for them to collect evidence on Zappala’s handling of cases like Wagman. There was, in fact, no mechanism to collect any sort of evidence for the “impeachment trial.” Some trial, right?

Rep. Dermody’s secretary was wearily perched at her Xerox machine, grinding out garbage on Larsen, while she told me they were too busy to collect evidence.

The impeachment itself was a long, drawn-out, expensive affair. There were five weeks of sham Senate “hearings” in which 56 “witnesses” were called, and whom Larsen and his attorney were allowed to cross examine.

The high point came when Justice Zappala was called to testify. He didn’t look too happy about it, either. On the opulent floor of the state Senate, Justice Zappala told the senators and House impeachment managers he had no idea which legal cases involved the interests of his brother, the bond underwriter. In fact, he told the senators, he had no idea what his brother the bond underwriter did.

Justice Zappala was asked about Russell, Rea & Zappala, and the involvement of his two sons, Stephen and Gregory, in the investment firm. “Could you identify what Russell, Rea & Zappala is?” Zappala was asked.

Zappala said he knew “absolutely nothing” about RR&Z, and nothing about what his sons did with his brother’s firm.

“Russell, Rea and Zappala, I’m assuming, is a financial institution,” Justice Zappala replied. “I do not know and could not say here under oath exactly what they do. I do not know anything about Russell, Rea. I know nothing about any subsidiaries. I know nothing about any of their workings. Absolutely nothing. Nor do I have an interest, nor have they given me anything, and more importantly, nor have I ever asked for anything.”

“Have you ever heard of a company by the name of S & G, Inc.?” Zappala was asked.

“Yes I have,” Zappala replies. “S stands for Stephen, G stands for Greg. They are my two sons. They’re both lawyers. They have a consulting business that works in conjunction with their uncle, and that’s all I know.” Their uncle, of course, was Charles Zappala, of Russell, Rea & Zappala — the justice’s brother. A few moments earlier he’d said, “I know nothing about any subsidiaries.”

“Have you ever had any occasion to do any business whatsoever with Russell, Rea & Zappala?” Justice Zappala was asked.

“You’re going to get me in trouble with my wife again,” Zappala replied. He said he’d bought “a little stock” from one of his sons. “I have two securities,” he said. “Lackawanna Water and Sewer and I think Allegheny County bond, General Fund.” He received no discount from his son, he said. “I found out about that after the investigator,” Zappala said. “And my wife asked me why we didn’t. And I said, you go talk to your son. He’s the one who sold it to you.”

The cherry on the cake came when Justice Zappala’s son, Gregory, subsequently tied up proceedings for a day or so by taking the impeachment committee to Commonwealth Court to protect his financial records. Larsen had been trying to call Gregory Zappala as a witness. The court held that if young Zappala felt a request for particular records was irrelevant, Commonwealth Court President Judge James G. Colins would serve as an arbitrator. (Yet earlier, when petitioned by Larsen, the courts had refused to delve into the legislature’s impeachment prerogative.)

Young Gregory Zappala proved that at least one Pennsylvanian felt secure in taking his business to state courts.

As mentioned, Gregory Zappala would go on to co-own the private detention facility that had bribed state judges in the infamous Kids for Cash scandal.

After Larsen’s impeachment, Gregory’s father, Stephen Sr., by seniority would become chief justice of the state Supreme Court in December 2001. Stephen Zappala would serve as chief justice until the end of 2002, when he turned 70 and was forced to retire.

Between 2004 and 2008, the state Judicial Conduct Board received at least four complaints about the judges being bribed in the Kids for Cash scandal, but the Conduct Board ignored the complaints. Other requests for investigations would also be ignored by the high court.

All this begs the question: by refusing to properly investigate the finances of the Zappalas during the Larsen impeachment, did the state legislature and errant media companies set the stage for the Kids for Cash scandal and the injury of thousands of Pennsylvania children?

On Tuesday, October 4, 1994, the full state Senate finally voted on the seven articles of impeachment lodged against Rolf Larsen. In the end, the senate acquitted Larsen on six of the seven counts, convicting him on only one.

On Article I, that Larsen kept a special list of cases pending before the Supreme Court to help his lawyer friends and political supporters receive favorable judicial review, Larsen was acquitted, twenty-four votes to twenty-five.

On Article II, that Larsen met with Pittsburgh attorney Richard Gilardi in early 1988 and agreed to personally review two of Gilardi’s cases, Larsen was convicted, forty-four votes to four. This count involved an episode where Gilardi wrote “yes” and “no” about each case on a piece of paper.

Article III, that Larsen lied to the grand jury “investigating” the high court when he denied ever having discussed the two cases with Gilardi; acquitted, thirty-one votes to eighteen.

Article IV, that Larsen improperly contacted Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Eunice Ross concerning a pending case involving another lawyer friend of Larsen’s, acquitted, twenty-eight votes to twenty-one.

Article V, that Larsen deliberately misused the legal process when he made “unfounded” accusations of criminal and judicial misconduct against Justices Zappala and Cappy, acquitted, twenty-seven votes to twenty-one.

On Article VI, that Larsen misused his position as a Supreme Court justice to induce his employees to engage in a criminal scheme to help Larsen obtain prescription drugs, acquitted, twenty-six votes to twenty-three.

On Article VII, that Larsen’s conduct undermined public confidence in the judicial process, acquitted, twenty-three votes to twenty-six.

A majority of senators evidently didn’t believe Larsen lied when he accused Justice Stephen Zappala of misconduct. This seems to indicate the senators had problems with Justice Zappala’s public conduct. They also refused, much to their credit, to buy into the sleazy charges involving the prescription drugs.

 

The count involving Gilardi — who was chairman of the high court’s own attorney disciplinary board — was the only one to stick in the state senate. Even this charge was weak and puzzling. Gilardi’s involvement in the two cases in question, and the outcome preferred by Gilardi, was no secret.

 

Nevertheless, having been convicted of this charge, Rolf Larsen was formally and permanently removed from office, and barred from ever again holding public office in Pennsylvania. This would prevent a court appeal from reinstating Larsen.

 

To some this outcome was puzzling, since Larsen had already been removed from office by a judge after his conviction for the drug charges. Perhaps the majority of state senators merely wanted to drive a stake through Rolf Larsen’s public heart.

 

Or perhaps they just wanted to take turns stabbing Larsen’s body.

 

With the single vote for conviction, they had ensured that Rolf Larsen, ever litigious, would never succeed in overturning his ouster by the court.

 

What happened to some of the reporters who refused to properly examine corruption in the state courts?

 

Stuart Ditzen, one of the Inquirer’s two reporters on the Larsen impeachment story, got a job as a spokesman for the Pennsylvania courts.

 

Rich Kirkpatrick became the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot).

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Updated: March 9, 2017 — 9:06 pm
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