Larsen's accusations against Nix - and others - are the latest sign of intense legal maneuvering over the investigation of Larsen's own conduct, an investigation that Larsen contends Nix engineered.
That investigation, which began more than two years ago, has led to an 8-1 vote by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board to recommend that Larsen be suspended from the bench for two months for privately discussing with a Pittsburgh judge a case pending before her. Larsen was cleared by the review board of four more serious allegations.
Larsen has asked the state Supreme Court to rule that the review board is acting unconstitutionally against him. As part of that request, he made a series of extraordinary accusations in court papers against Nix and several other officials in a position to vote against him.
He describes Charles L. Durham, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge who served on the review board, as an "unqualified puppet" of Nix's and a ''mental incompetent" so hopeless that he is befuddled by simple court procedures. Larsen says Nix "concealed and covered up Judge Durham's incompetence and lack of fitness."
The documents suggest a full-scale escalation of what Larsen calls the ''enmity" between the chief justice and himself. They also reflect the seriousness of the legal stakes for Larsen as the review board, for the first time in its history, has voted to recommend disciplining a Supreme Court justice.
Larsen has contended that three board members - Bruce W. Kauffman, James H. Higgins and Antonia Scarlata - are improperly voting on his conduct because their terms on the board have ended. He contends that Kauffman, a former state Supreme Court justice, and Scarlata, a Pittsburgh businesswoman, should be disqualified because they have personal bias or interests against him.
And, the documents show, last November Larsen asked the Supreme Court to disqualify Durham from the inquiry board based on his contention that Durham is not competent.
At a hearing in Harrisburg on Friday, Larsen attorney A. Charles Peruto Sr. called on the court to disqualify Kauffman, Higgins and Scarlata from voting on the allegations based on the expiration of their terms. The court refused to consider the allegations of bias or incompetence raised by Larsen.
The Supreme Court hearing came as the board was scheduled to offer Larsen a chance tomorrow to contest its findings, after which the board could have filed its report with the court. The report would include only recommendations; any disciplinary action could come only from the court.
While the court considers Larsen's challenge, it has blocked the board from taking further action in the case.
In the documents, copies of which became available Friday, Larsen contends that Nix has enjoyed a "close, mutually beneficial" relationship with the review board that has caused the board to act in Nix's behalf over the years.
Because of that relationship, Larsen contends, the board did not charge Nix in several instances in which Larsen contends there was evidence of misconduct. It was in that context that he contended Nix had failed to pay taxes, interceded for his friend and voted in cases in which he had "a personal interest in the outcome."
Larsen first raised those allegations with the court last November, court records show, when he asked Nix to disqualify himself from considering the motion against Durham.
Nix yesterday said that he could not comment, adding, "any response will be made at the appropriate time." Durham was unavailable for comment.
The documents offer no details of the formal charges he has filed against Nix with the review board, but the documents make clear they pertain to two matters:
* A 1980 case involving former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht, who was being prosecuted on charges that he illegally used county facilities to perform private pathology work. The case went to the Supreme Court when the prosecutor, an ally of Larsen's, asked the court to order an out-of-county judge to hear the case. Larsen, according to testimony, favored the request, while Nix was the lone opponent.
* A 1986 case involving Philadelphia lawyer Joseph H. Weiss, who had admitted paying police to protect a friend's massage parlor. The court voted 3-1 to suspend Weiss from practicing law for four years based on his admission, a penalty that disciplinary experts called lenient. He had been represented at the hearing by board member Kauffman, whom Larsen characterizes in his papers as a "close personal friend" of Nix's. Larsen excused himself
from taking part in the decision. Nix was in the majority.
In neither case do Larsen's court papers say what he contends Nix did wrong. The documents are the first public signal of any questions over Nix's behavior in either matter.
The Larsen papers - in which he refers dryly to the case against him as ''Board Matter No. 140" - depict a cast of characters with personal vendettas against him and a chief justice supposedly trying to mastermind his downfall.
The Larsen documents allege that two investigators for the review board offered a witness freedom from prison if he would testify - falsely - against Larsen. The investigators denied the accusation when it was raised two years ago, court documents show.
The Larsen papers accuse board member Scarlata of having a direct financial interest in a negative judgment against Larsen.
Similarly, the papers accuse board member Kauffman of standing to gain financially from his problems because of Kauffman's relationship with The Inquirer.
Larsen's allegations are the latest chapter in the animosity between the two justices that has existed since misconduct charges were first brought against Larsen a decade ago. Those charges were based in part on allegations that he had made racial slurs against Nix, the court's first black chief justice.
The current investigation marks the second time that Larsen has been investigated by the review board since he was elected to the Supreme Court in 1977. The board in 1983 found by a vote of 6-3 that he committed no misconduct. In that case, which never has been officially unsealed, both Nix and Wecht, the former coronor, testified against Larsen. In the court papers, Larsen now blames Nix and Kauffman for instigating that investigation.
Among Larsen's specific charges were these:
* Since the fall of 1988, "Judge Durham has rarely been at work and on the bench. . . . (His) absenteeism and lack of performance . . . is a direct result of his mental incompetency." On the rare occasions when Durham shows up, Larsen's documents contend, "he is assigned only the simplest of tasks. He is in constant need of guidance and instruction . . . and routine motions . . . confuse and befuddle him."
Peruto contends that Nix "purposely buried" his petition last November to have Durham removed from the inquiry board. The petition contends Nix's efforts "to hide Judge Durham were deliberately calculated to keep an unqualified puppet on the so-called hearing committee insuring a pre- determined negative vote against" Larsen by the review board.
The petition contends that Supreme Court members sought to consider the motion against Durham early last month. But before that occurred, the petition contends, Durham resigned "at the behest" of Nix, "his sponsor and confidant," effective April 11, the petition contends.
The review board also then quickly moved to serve its findings on Larsen, the petition states. Because Durham "lacked the mental ability to competently carry out judicial duties and functions," Larsen contended, any vote he cast in the Larsen matter "is void, a nullity, and of no legal effect."
Board officials wrote that Larsen's contention about Durham's fitness is ''without sufficient basis and without merit."
* In a 10-page letter to Gov. Casey dated Dec. 12, 1989, Peruto contended that board member Scarlata stood to gain from a negative decision against Larsen because of a complicated connection her lawyer-husband had with a man who had sold Larsen some real estate.
Charles Scarlata represented the man, Nikolai Zdrale, who was appealing his
criminal conviction for conspiring to kill a state environmental inspector. But Zdrale had no money to pay Scarlata, so the lawyer "stripped" Zdrale of his lone asset, his "expensive, luxury late-model Mercedes-Benz" as partial payment, according to the letter.
The letter to Casey suggests that if the review board should find against Larsen, it could recommend a sanction that would include Larsen's having to return the land to Zdrale. Thus, it contends, Zdrale would have an additional asset with which to pay his outstanding attorney fees - directly benefiting board member Scarlata and giving her "a strong motive" to find against Larsen.
The letter also contends that shortly after Larsen tried in October 1989 to have Antonia Scarlata recuse herself, her husband called Zdrale "and attempted to have him fabricate a story implicating (Larsen) in unethical and/ or illegal activities."
Zdrale refused, Peruto wrote. When he said he wanted to consult with another attorney, Charles Scarlata and his co-counsel "backed away" and said they could not continue to represent Zdrale, wrote Peruto. Zdrale, he wrote, was "without counsel in his appeal and without his Mercedes-Benz."
The Scarlatas still "use and enjoy" the car, the letter said.
Scarlata, in a statement filed with the court, said that Zdrale lacked credibility and that she saw no need to disqualify herself based on his allegations. Additionally, she wrote, she had no financial, emotional or ''extraneous interest" in the outcome of the charges against Larsen.
Last week, Charles Scarlata called Larsen's allegation "preposterous."
* In a nine-page letter to Casey dated Jan. 8, Peruto noted Kauffman's relationship with The Inquirer. His firm represents Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., publisher of The Inquirer and the Daily News, in labor matters. Peruto contended that The Inquirer "stands to benefit directly from any determination adverse" to Larsen because it could hurt Larsen's claim for damages in a libel suit he has pending against the paper.
Moreover, the letter said, a direct benefit to the paper amounts to an indirect benefit to Kauffman. A negative judgment against Larsen, said the letter, "would enhance his prestige with (the newspaper) which in turn could very well involve pecuniary benefits" to Kauffman.
Kauffman, in a statement he filed with the court, said that he had no bias against Larsen that would cause him to be unfair.
In voting to recommend discipline against Larsen, the board found other, more serious allegations against him had not been proven:
* A zoning matter in which Larsen was alleged to have extracted $350,000
from a developer if Larsen dropped his objections to a development near Larsen's home in Pittsburgh.
* Contentions by then-Allegheny County Judge Emil Narick that Larsen had improperly tried to influence him in three cases.