Questions of nepotism and constables in Bucks County

Posted: June 10, 2014

When Jean Seaman, a district judge in Jamison, Bucks County, needed civil notices to be served for her court over the last four years, she often called on her daughter, Stacy Wertman.

Wertman, an elected constable in Ivyland, works for five district courts in Bucks County, and she made about $11,000 last year completing jobs for her mother.

Constables, locally elected officers who perform tasks such as serving warrants and transporting prisoners, are paid by the assignment, and judges can assign any task to any qualified constable they prefer. In some counties, that includes family members.

In Bucks, that practice - currently used by Seaman and at least two other judges - is facing questions after two Pennsylvania state agencies recommended banning such payments to relatives.

"I think the issue is there is always going to be that appearance of impropriety," said Robert Pollock, Bucks County deputy court administrator, who is leading a task force reviewing constable rules.

Pollock emphasized he was not aware of any cases of misconduct by judges and constables who are related.

The constable is a centuries-old office, and in recent years a handful of constables across Pennsylvania have been removed for alleged misconduct. The incidents sparked criticism from some lawmakers that the position lacks oversight and quality standards.

Last year, the state Supreme Court took a stab at reform by enacting several new statewide guidelines, such as requiring a cage between the front and back seats of all constables' vehicles for safety, and ruling that all constables on duty must wear clothing clearly marking them as court officers.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, hopes to press further in the legislature. In an interview last week, he said developing a statewide handbook with additional constable standards - such as new training protocols and eligibility rules - was a necessity.

"It's a whole quagmire of issues that we're trying to deal with," he said, "to try and professionalize, modernize, to make them assets to the court."

One of the more complex issues, Caltagirone said, is whether to allow payments to family members.

In Bucks County, Judge Seaman says she has self-imposed standards in employing her daughter. She never asks Wertman, for example, to serve criminal warrants, "because she shouldn't be arresting people and bringing them in front of me."

Constable Kevin Wagner, who sometimes serves out of his brother's court in Bristol Township, said most of those assignments were requested by another constable there, not his brother Judge Robert Wagner.

He typically receives assignments out of another court, getting paid standard constable fees: about $40 for transporting a prisoner, and less than $30 for collecting on out-of-date parking tickets.

Wagner also said he and his brother were elected and governed by the same county rules as anyone else.

"They've elected me to do this job," he said. "They elected my brother to be judge, with never a complaint about anything to my knowledge, certainly not about nepotism.

"I could see not hiring me to be a clerk there. But as far as this is concerned, I'm an elected official."

Two new documents from state agencies, however, took a different view.

In April, a study about constable reform prepared for the General Assembly by the Joint State Government Commission recommended "the prohibition on nepotistic approval of fees" to avoid the temptation of judges assigning phony work to relatives.

In May, William D. Chisholm of the state Ethics and Professionalism Committee wrote in a memo to Bucks County that the committee viewed such payments as "inappropriate."

"Just because a long-standing practice has been occurring it does not mean the practice is correct or ethical," Chisholm wrote.

He issued the memo in response to a request from Bucks County, according to Pollock, head of the county's district courts.

A task force in Bucks is looking at developing a constable handbook, and a member of the group - Pollock is not sure who - asked the ethics committee for an opinion on family payments.

Chisholm's opinion is not binding, and Pollock said the handbook was likely months from being finished.

But he said the task force was "the perfect venue" to examine the issue.

The group has had at least one immediate impact: Seaman said she had taken a voluntary hiatus from giving her daughter assignments until the issue is resolved.

"Obviously," Pollock said, "there are some concerns whenever you have family members working together. . . . It's something we wanted to discuss."

609-217-8305 @cs_palmer

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