Chester Heights pol signed checks to own firm

Posted: July 21, 2010

Delaware County investigators haven't decided whether to open a criminal probe into the financial dealings of Chester Heights Council President Michael Pierce, who had been signing borough checks to his own law firm for the past six years.

But a new batch of documents obtained by the Daily News begs the question: Do Chester Heights officials just keep sloppy records, or did someone try to recreate history when one of Pierce's political enemies started asking questions?

Last month, an anonymous tipster claiming to be a member of the Delaware County Bar Association - Pierce is the president-elect - sent records to county District Attorney G. Michael Green showing that Pierce had repeatedly signed borough checks to his own law firm, Pierce & Hughes.

The payments to the Media-based firm were for legal work that Pierce's law partner, Paul Hughes, performed for the borough. Pierce has maintained that although he frequently signed the checks, which require two signatures, he had an "ongoing abstention" on votes to approve those payments.

The meeting minutes, however, state that the council almost always voted "unanimously" to pay the bills, with Pierce in attendance.

In response to a recent records request, Chester Heights last week provided the Daily News with minutes of a Jan. 4, 2006, council meeting at which Hughes was reappointed, and with a memo that Pierce purportedly signed that day stating that he had abstained from voting then because Hughes is his law partner.

But, in an apparent error, the borough previously provided the anonymous tipster with minutes of a Jan. 3, 2006, meeting, and an abstention memo dated Jan. 3, 2006, that strongly appears to be a photocopy of the Jan. 4 memo - including Pierce's writing and signature - with only its date changed.

There was no council meeting on Jan. 3, 2006, according to Susan Timmins, the Chester Heights secretary/treasurer. Timmins said the abstention memo for a meeting that didn't occur might have involved a typo.

"Nobody's doing anything dishonest," Timmins said. Referring to the memos, she added, "We could have reused one and I could have whited it out" and changed the date.

Furthermore, a January 2010 Pierce abstention memo pertaining to Hughes strongly appears to be a photocopy of the two January 2006 memos, or vice versa, with only the date changed.

Under the state Ethics Act, those documents must be filed when a public official abstains from voting due to a conflict of interest.

Pierce requested last week that this reporter e-mail questions to him, but Pierce did not respond to three e-mails.

Chester Heights Solicitor Gerald Montella said yesterday that he had not reviewed the records but that he believed the Jan. 3, 2006, minutes were the result of a "typographical error." He said he couldn't comment on the apparently photocopied abstention memos.

"I don't think there's anything being done that's untoward," Montella said.

Asked last month whether the abstention memos actually had been filed on the dates written on them, Pierce said, "I would think so." He said he "may have" photocopied some documents, but could not recall for sure.

Hughes resigned in May as Chester Heights' conflicts-and-litigation solicitor after the borough received requests for documents pertaining to the Pierce & Hughes payments. Hughes said in his resignation letter that his "trial schedule and the economics of my practice" make it impossible to keep the borough position.

Pierce, a Delaware County GOP insider, is rumored to be considering running for the district judge seat vacated by Aston Township's David Murphy.

Murphy, a Democrat-turned-Republican, is expected to plead guilty today to forgery and identity-theft charges stemming from an election-fraud case last year.

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