Attorney general weighing potential Helfrich challenge

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

A week after a York City resident promised to challenge Michael Helfrich’s eligibility to serve as York City mayor if officials did not take action, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office is taking a look at whether to bring its own challenge.

Rick Loper, 64, asked the York City Council on Nov. 21 to file a lawsuit challenging Helfrich’s ability to hold public office because of his 1991 felony drug conviction, stating he wanted the city to follow and enforce the “laws that are on the books.”

Michael Helfrich recites his oath of office as he, Carol Hill-Evans and Joanne Borders are sworn-in to their positions on York City Council, Tuesday January 3, 2012. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Loper pointed to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which bars those convicted of “embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime” from holding elected office. 

More:York City resident pledges challenge to Mayor-elect Helfrich's eligibility

Helfrich was 21 when he pleaded guilty in 1991 to two felony drug charges, after he was arrested with a man carrying psychedelic drugs. Helfrich spent 45 days in York County Prison and was released after his plea, when the judge determined "he was not the player in this."

That conviction was the subject of months of hearings after current York City Mayor Kim Bracey challenged Helfrich’s eligibility to serve on the York City Council in December 2011, following his victory over a longtime incumbent the month before.

Bracey filed her challenge after District Attorney Tom Kearney recused himself from the case and then-Attorney General Linda Kelly declined to file a lawsuit.

Infamous crime? Then-President York County Common Pleas Judge Stephen 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.

As he did six years ago, Kearney has again recused himself from the case and referred it to the Attorney General’s Office. Kearney served as Helfrich’s defense attorney for his 1991 felony drug case.

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

Joe Grace, spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, confirmed Wednesday, Nov. 29, that the state’s top law enforcement office is now reviewing Helfrich’s case after Kearney’s recusal. Grace declined to provide further details about that review or a timeline for a final decision by the office. 

Michael Helfrich arrives after the polls closed at Holy Hound to a room crowded with supporters, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Reached Thursday, Nov. 30, Helfrich reiterated that he believes the courts have already settled this issue, since he has served in public office for the last six years.

“A decision has already been made on whether or not I can serve in an office of public trust for the people of York City,” Helfrich said. “My limited understanding of our judicial system makes me fairly confident that this has been decided. I would not have run, frankly, for this office if I did not think it was already decided.”

Loper said Thursday, Nov. 30, that he will let the Attorney General's Office make its final decision before exploring his legal options for filing a challenge against Helfrich.

With the Dauphin County District Attorney's Office recently asking a newly elected Harrisburg school board member to step down because of  her past misdemeanor convictions, Loper said he just wants to see the state Supreme Court issue a final ruling on "infamous crimes."

"We can't have a checkerboard method of following laws" in Pennsylvania, Loper said, adding that a Supreme Court ruling could have "great ramifications" across the state.

Interim mayor? If the Attorney General’s Office or Loper brings a successful challenge, the York City Council would be responsible for filling a vacancy in the mayor’s office, according to the Administrative Code of the City of York enacted in 1962.

The council would have 30 days from the date of the vacancy to appoint an interim mayor to serve until the next municipal election, meaning an interim mayor could serve up to two years, according to G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Anyone could be named to the position by the council, Madonna said, as long as the replacement meets the requirements for holding public office laid out in the state constitution and the city’s administrative code.

Mayors must be at least 25, have lived in the city for at least a year and remain a city resident throughout their stint in office, according to the code.

Nothing in the city’s administrative code or the Pennsylvania Constitution would stop the council from installing Bracey as interim mayor if the courts rule Helfrich cannot serve in public office.

“Just because you lose an election doesn’t mean you’d be ineligible to be appointed to office,” Madonna said, adding he believes the courts have “already rendered a judgment” on Helfrich’s eligibility to hold public office.

If the council is left to name an interim mayor, Madonna said he would expect an “open and transparent” process, with council members soliciting applications and holding public interviews for those who apply. 

Madonna said the council could also ask a potential interim candidate to sign a commitment not to stand for re-election, though that is not required by any law.