DA declines to challenge York City mayor's eligibility to serve

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday will not challenge the eligibility of Michael Helfrich to serve as York City's mayor, but six city residents are expected to refile their lawsuit seeking to have Helfrich removed.

Sunday's decision not to take up the challenge was spelled out In a letter provided to local news outlets by Rick Loper, one of six plaintiffs who filed a complaint in York County Court challenging Helfrich's eligibility to serve as mayor.

State law bars people convicted of "infamous crimes" from holding public office, and Loper maintains that Helfrich's 1991 guilty plea to felony drug dealing constitutes an infamous crime.

Michael Helfrich walks through his office after taking the oath of office during a ceremony outside York City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

York attorney Karen Comery filed the complaint Dec. 28 on behalf of Loper and the other plaintiffs, but withdrew it in early January.

"The decision was based on several factors and in no way addresses the merits and/or underlying facts concerning the action," she wrote at the time in a statement.

In a Feb. 2 email, Loper said Comery did not seek the permission of the plaintiffs to withdraw the filing and did not apprise them beforehand that she was withdrawing it.

Reached Friday, Comery told The York Dispatch, "I am no longer involved in the case and they can say what they wish."

She confirmed Sunday's letter was sent to her and to attorney Chuck Hobbs, who represents Helfrich, and that she in turn provided the letter to her then-clients.

Loper's fellow plaintiffs in the case were Anthony Orr, Carla Evette Freeland, Margaret Eckles-Ray, Kim Murray and Toni Smith, who spent years on York City Council and whom Helfrich defeated in a write-in campaign for a council seat.

Plaintiffs to refile suit: Loper wrote in his Friday email that he and his fellow former plaintiffs intend to refile their lawsuit. He noted that Sunday's letter specifically states they have legal standing to challenge Helfrich's eligibility to serve.

"With the district attorney officially removing himself from the matter, the plaintiffs plan to again take action," Loper wrote.

He also wrote that the plaintiffs didn't know in advance that Comery was going to withdraw the complaint

"We only found out about (it) after she had done so," he wrote.

Sunday told The York Dispatch that because of the once and pending lawsuit, "it would not be appropriate for me to comment any further than the language that's in the letter."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich gives a speech after taking the oath of office during a ceremony outside City Hall Tuesday, Jan 2, 2017. Helfrich is the 25th mayor of York. Bill Kalina photo

He said it was sent to the attorneys involved to make sure they understood that his office's position is that the plaintiffs have legal standing to sue.

Not taking sides: Regarding his decision not to challenge Helfrich's eligibility to serve, Sunday wrote in his letter that it "should not be viewed as a comment either in favor (of) or against the complaint and petition" filed against Helfrich.

"My refusal also should not be viewed by any member of the public as how this office will proceed in the future regarding individuals with felony convictions seeking and obtaining public office," Sunday wrote. "Rather, my decision is based upon the unique and particular procedural history involving (Helfrich's) qualifications generally ..."

Helfrich maintains the issue has already been decided by a court of law, since he's held public office for six years after a judge determined Helfrich's crime wasn't "infamous."

"I had thought that we were pretty well done with this," he told The York Dispatch on Friday.

The mayor said he's glad that the district attorney's office won't be pursuing a challenge to his mayoral eligibility and not surprised the plaintiffs have said they intend to refile their lawsuit against him.

The background: A former York County president judge previously ruled that Helfrich's crime didn't prohibit him from serving as a city councilman. That ruling was handed down after former York City Mayor Kim Bracey challenged Helfrich's election as councilman in 2011.

Now 47, Helfrich was 21 years old when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to felony drug possession, after he was arrested with a man carrying psychedelic drugs.

Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his time-served plea when the judge determined “he was not the player in this.”

That conviction was the basis of Bracey's challenge.

She filed her challenge after York County's former district attorney, Tom Kearney — who represented Helfrich in the drug case — recused himself and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office declined to pursue the matter.

It came after plaintiff Smith, an incumbent city councilwoman at the time, circulated flyers questioning Helfrich’s eligibility to challenge her, citing his felony record.

More:Complaint against York City Mayor Michael Helfrich withdrawn

More:Six York City residents challenge Helfrich's mayoral eligibility

More:Michael Helfrich: From 'creek freak' to York City mayor-elect

Won write-in vote: Smith defeated Helfrich by 99 votes in the primary, but Helfrich launched a write-in campaign and defeated Smith by six votes in the November 2011 municipal election.

Then-President York County Common Pleas Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh ruled in August 2012 that Helfrich’s felony conviction does not qualify as an “infamous crime,” breaking decades of case law in Pennsylvania under which all felonies were considered infamous.

Bracey declined to appeal Linebaugh’s ruling to a higher court, and Helfrich served out his four-year term before being re-elected to the council in 2015. Helfrich took over as city council president in November 2016.

Loper had promised to challenge Helfrich’s eligibility to serve as mayor if the district attorney and attorney general declined to pursue a challenge. 

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.