By Peter Becker
PIKE COUNTY - What was expected to be a ballot contest for Magisterial District Judge in western Pike County could be left to a sole candidate following legal challenges to Mark E. Moulton's petitions by his contender's law firm partners.
The matter is in the hands of the Pike County Court, following two days of hearings.
Moulton, as well as Shannon L. Muir, cross-filed on both the Democratic and Republican ballots, to run for District Magistrate for Blooming Grove, Palmyra and Greene Townships. Both are practicing attorneys.
Because the office of Magisterial District Judge is nonpartisan, candidates usually cross-file on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. Specific rules govern the candidacy for Magisterial District Judge. Among these is the prohibition of being a member of any partisan political organization- favoring one party over another- while campaigning for the office.
Alleged violation of this rule was at the heart of the second petition, heard Wednesday, regarding Moulton's filing on the Republican ticket.
Two other attorneys - Matthew J. Galasso and Christopher R. Kimler, filed the objections to Moulton's candidacy within the time frame before the ballot for the May 21st Primary becomes official.
Galasso is candidate Shannon Muir's husband; both he and Kimler are part of the same law firm with Muir.
Monroe County Judge Arthur Zulick is specially presiding. Representing Moulton is Honesdale-based attorney Hugh Richner. The objectors are represented by attorney Thomas Mincer, a Milford lawyer. Testimony commenced on March 21.
They presented a separate petition challenging Moulton's filing in the Democratic race. After the hearing, he subsequently withdrew his request to be placed on the Democratic ballot.
The Democratic petition challenge alleged Moulton had not earned the required 100 signatures needed to be placed on the May ballot. Although Moultonís Democratic nominating petition listed 116 signatures, a press release from Muir's campaign said that the petition challenge asserted that 37 of the signatures were not from registered Democrats in Blooming Grove, Palmyra and Greene Townships.
Rechner told The News Eagle that the number "37" was not in the Petition. He said that in his own review, there could have been 8-9 that could be questioned. Rechner said he agreed with his client it would be better to withdraw his petition from the Democratic ballot and focus on the Republican side.
The Petition further alleged that Moulton himself was not properly registered to vote, Muir's campaign reported.
"That is ridiculous," Rechner replied. He said that there was simply what appears to be a typo in Moulton's house number on his voter registration card, which he had not noticed. Rechner called this allegation "frivolous" and if it was reasonable, it would have been part of the Democratic ballot challenge as well.
Mincer had also argued that Moultonís mother had verified signatures that she did not witness, since she was living in Florida as of the date of the signatures.
Rechner replied that there were two signatures with dates that may have been written in error, and were part of the eight or nine he had seen in his own review. Rechner countered the allegation made it look much more alarming than it was.
A representative from Pennstar Bank testified that Moulton was removed as a signatory from the bank account for the PAC, Blooming Grove Friends for a Better America, the day after the petition challenging his involvement with the PAC was filed. The PAC listed Mark Moultonís law office as its address and phone number of record.
Rechner told The News Eagle that because the change made to the account was not done on the same day or next of his withdrawal from the PAC is not chargeable to Mark. The bank admitted it was their document only for their internal use.
Attorney Mincer argued that Moulton is an ineligible candidate due to violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Magisterial District Judges and Candidates.
Attorney Rechner countered with testimony and evidence that Moulton resigned from the three political organizations where he had been a member before starting to gather the required signatures to be placed on the ballot. Mincer, however, stressed that Moulton only announced "privately" to a "couple friends" that he had resigned, and as far as the public could know, he was still involved in partisan political groups.
The Petition asserts that Moulton has continued to engage in partisan political activity, as advertised on his campaign website. Furthermore, documents on file in the Pike County Elections Office showed that Moulton remained a chairman of a Political Action Committee (PAC) after petitioning for his Magisterial District Judge candidacy, Mincer argued.
Moulton was serving as chairman of the Blooming Grove Friends for a Better America, a PAC, and was chairman of the Blooming Grove Republican Club, a subsection of the Pike County Republican Committee, where he also held membership.
One of the witnesses for Moulton's side, Michael Christopher, treasurer of the Blooming Grove Republican Club, brought documents to substantiate that Moulton had formally resigned from these organizations. Moulton had submitted the letters of resignation on February 18th at his law office in Lords Valley to other club and PAC members. The next morning, he began collecting signatures.
Rechner brought out that Moulton did publicly announce he had resigned these organizations, at a candidate's forum hosted by the Blooming Grove Republican Club on Feb. 27. About 30 to 40 people attended, said Club member and County Commissioner Rich Caridi.
At the Feb. 18th meeting, Moulton gave his letters announcing his resignation from the County Committee, as well as from the Blooming Grove Republican Club to Michael Zibrin, who was acting club chairman while the chairperson was on a Florida vacation. Zibrin testified that he planned to announce the resignation at the next full committee meeting on March 7, but did not attend due to circumstances about a trip of his own. Moulton visited the committee on that date and reported he had resigned, said Rechner.
Michael Christopher also received the letter of resignation as chairman and member of the PAC, from Moulton, on Feb. 18.
Under questioning by Mincer, Moulton said he had not reported his resignations to the County Bureau of Elections or to the state or federal governments. Moulton said that since he had resigned, he could not take any further official action by contacting the County Recorder's Office.
Various testimony asserted Moulton has refrained from further partisan political involvement since resigning from the groups.
Mincer had many questions about the campaign web site, moultonforjustice, which he said both lists Moulton's involvement in these partisan political groups and requests donations, both which he noted are violations of the campaign rules.
Moulton, however, said he is not in charge of the web site; his father is the administrator, and added he (candidate Mark Moulton) had not even looked at the site.
Grilling continued as Mincer wanted an explanation for the Blooming Grove Republican Club web site, which continued to list Moulton as chairman until it was finally changed on March 21st. Michael Christopher said he had put it off because it was hard to update the site.
Rechner countered several times to the Court that Mincer was going beyond the three allegations in the Petition, concerning Moulton's part in the three organizations.
Sharon Schroeder, secretary of the Pike County Republican Committee, testified that she never received a letter of resignation but learned Moulton had resigned when she was taking a roll call at their March 7 meeting.
Caridi testified that Moulton had told the club back in January he would have to resign from the three organizations if he filed for the nomination. Moulton was waiting to learn the outcome of a PA Supreme Court decision, of whether to dissolve the magisterial district now held by Judge Jay Rose, who is retiring at the end of 2013 (the Court ruled to keep the district intact).
Christopher said he did not recall seeing Moulton on Feb. 19, the day after the resignation letters were submitted. Mincer then wanted to know how it was that Christopher and others at the Feb. 18 meeting, were signing Moulton's petition the next day. Nicholas Mazza, club member, was asked the about the same matter. Although Mazza's name is the first on the petition, he answered Mincer that he did not know if Moulton handed the petition to him to sign.
In his closing, Mincer told the Court that the campaign rules give the candidate responsibility to ensure that family assisting the campaign also abide by the same standards of political conduct, yet Moulton says his father controlled the web site. He questioned why Moulton would not even check the web site to be sure he was still listed as chairman and member of the PAC.
Mincer commented that some of Moulton's statements about the web site "borders on science fiction."
He argued that relaxing the campaign rules give the candidate free reign while penalizing other candidates who strive to do the right thing.
Rechner told the Court that the campaign rule involves membership in political organizations and says nothing about web sites. He charged that Mincer was again going beyond the scope of the objectors' Petition.
Although the Pike County Republican Committee bylaws did not spell out a procedure of how to resign, another point Mincer pressed, Rechner noted that the public was not hurt. Moulton had announced his resignations at the Feb. 27 candidates' forum, Rechner reminded.
The Judge stated that he would render a decision by Monday, April 1.