Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Da Takes Action on Allegations about Judge Claim Says Nonjury Trial Was Urged for Ex-Councilman

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Da Takes Action on Allegations about Judge Claim Says Nonjury Trial Was Urged for Ex-Councilman

Article excerpt

The Allegheny County District Attorney's office has asked for a hearing to determine whether improper conversations occurred between former county Councilman Chuck McCullough's defense attorney and the judge who presided over his criminal case.

In a petition filed Thursday, the prosecution asked that the issue be heard by someone other than Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, who was identified in a defense petition filed last week as having improperly communicated with Mr. McCullough's former defense attorney, Jon Pushinsky.

"Judge Nauhaus is either a witness as they've alleged or he's complicit in a crime," District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said. "Either way, he can't sit as a finder of fact in an evidentiary hearing."

Two DA investigators attempted to contact Mr. Pushinsky on Thursday to speak with him about the allegations raised by Mr. McCullough's new defense attorney, Megan Will, but he refused to speak with them, citing attorney-client privilege. He cited the same reason in saying he could not comment for this report. He did say, though, "If I am required to appear as a witness, and there is a full waiver of client privilege, I will be required to answer proper questions."

Mr. McCullough, who was accused of taking money from an elderly widow whom he represented, was found guilty on 10 of 24 counts against him in a nonjury trial earlier this year before Judge Nauhaus. He was supposed to have been sentenced Monday, but Ms. Will, who was hired by Mr. McCullough on Nov. 3, has asked Judge Nauhaus to remove himself from the case.

In her petition, she alleged that Judge Nauhaus relayed to Mr. Pushinsky through a mutual friend that Mr. McCullough "should go nonjury" in his trial. Further, Ms. Will wrote that Judge Nauhaus called Mr. Pushinsky and yelled at him after he filed a petition with the court, and that the judge improperly talked about the case with his secretary. In each instance, she claimed, the communication occurred outside of the prosecution's hearing, making it an ex-parte communication.

Ms. Will said that the judge's behavior forced Mr. McCullough to give up his right to a jury trial because he feared the repercussions if he did not.

"A reasonable interpretation of the petition was that a crime was going to be committed," Mr. Zappala said. "They're alleging that a case was going to be fixed."

According to the district attorney's motion, although the commonwealth may have doubts about the allegations, the allegations alone "tend to subject the Allegheny County judiciary to disrepute." Therefore, a hearing - before a different judge - is necessary.

The motion contends there is no reason at this time for Judge Nauhaus to recuse himself from Mr. McCullough's sentencing, particularly if the defense cannot prove the ex-parte communications occurred. …

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