Residents petition for Helfrich pardon, but process would take years
Michael R. Helfrich was sworn in as the 25th Mayor of York City on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2017. At the tail end of his address, he introduced a an interim police chief, as well as other cabinet officials.
Nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition seeking a pardon for York City Mayor Michael Helfrich, but the actual pardons process in Pennsylvania would likely last beyond his first term in office.
Helfrich, sworn into office Jan. 2, is facing a legal challenge from six York City residents who argue a 1991 felony drug pleading makes him ineligible to serve as mayor.
The plaintiffs, who include a longtime former city councilwoman, have asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction to prevent him from holding office while the matter is litigated. Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Renn scheduled a hearing on that request for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 16, according to court filings.
In an effort to help eliminate Helfrich's legal hurdles, Hallam Borough Councilman Michael Wascovich started a Change.org petition Jan. 4 urging Gov. Tom Wolf to pardon the new mayor for his former crimes.
"The people who voted for (Helfrich) knew that he had a criminal record and that he served his punishment," the petition reads. "We want Governor Tom Wolf to issue a pardon to Michael Helfrich so that he can finally lead York City and put to rest these lawsuits that are wasting the court's time."
The petition had garnered more than 900 signatures by midday Friday, Jan. 5.
Wascovich said he didn't expect so much support when he started the petition, but he saw a lot of people complaining on social media about the situation and wanted to do something to help.
Though he's not a city resident and therefore didn't vote in the mayoral election, Wascovich said he feels the rest of the county is affected by the city, and he doesn't want to see it fail.
He said he hopes to get at least 2,000 signatures on his petition before forwarding it to Wolf — who publicly endorsed Helfrich's opponent Kim Bracey before the election — and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack on Wednesday, Jan. 10, or Thursday, Jan. 11.
Lengthy process: J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Wolf's office, wrote in an email that state law does not give the governor any unilateral power to review, reconsider or change a conviction.
"The petition is seeking an action that is not permitted or possible under current law," he wrote.
JP Kurish, a spokesman for Stack, explained that the only way a pardon can be granted in Pennsylvania is upon recommendation by the Board of Pardons, chaired by the lieutenant governor, which the governor can either approve or reject.
Helfrich would need to apply for the pardon himself — which he hasn't done — and the length of the pardons process varies depending on a number of factors but generally takes about four years from application to governor's signature, according to Kurish.
"All applications are processed in the order in which they are received, without exception," Kurish wrote in an email.
He added that letters of support and petitions can be included with an application.
Wascovich said he didn't know about the lengthy process to receive a pardon when he started the petition, but Helfrich explained it to him while calling to thank him for the support.
Philip Given, spokesman for Helfrich's office, said the mayor is appreciative of the support, but his focus is on working to improve York City, while his attorney, Chuck Hobbs, is focused on the legal challenge.
Reforms needed: At issue is a standard laid out in the Pennsylvania Constitution: "No person convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime shall be ... capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth."
Felonies have been considered infamous crimes in this state, and Helfrich pleaded guilty to a felony in 1991.
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 the now-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 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.”
Wascovich, a Democrat who has announced a run for the state House in the coming election, said his chat with Helfrich opened his eyes to the need for criminal justice reforms.
"Our criminal-justice system has a fallacy where people who serve time and are supposed to be rehabilitated, but actually their crimes are never forgiven," Wascovich said.
Running for the 47th district seat currently held by Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, Wascovich said he would make criminal-justice reform legislation a priority if he's elected.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.