Luzerne County Council members should not be intimidated by county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis’ threat of litigation seeking more budget funds, county Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said in an email Monday.
“Whether you choose to raise the DA’s budget, keep it the same or lower it, I do not believe you should consider the District Attorney’s threat of litigation, or any other meritless threat, in your budget considerations in any way,” Pedri told council.
Pedri said he has reviewed Salavantis’ published complaints about staffing and believes the litigation she’s contemplating filing would be “without merit and not based in Pennsylvania law.”
“In addition, should District Attorney Salavantis choose to bring a lawsuit, I personally will defend the county, defraying the need and cost of outside counsel,” he wrote.
Pedri said the county’s home rule charter clearly gives council “power and discretion” to adopt a budget “in the best interest of” county citizens, and he wants to ensure council members understand that and are “comfortable” as they head into 2014 budget discussions.
Pedri’s email was in response to a media statement made by Salavantis that she was contemplating litigation. This is not new. She has been weighing the pros and cons of potential litigation since council passed its 2013 budget last December but has not pulled the trigger.
Salavantis said Monday she has not prepared a lawsuit and hopes one is not necessary.
“I reiterate I’m hoping to avoid legal action, but the current state of affairs cannot continue,” she said.
Her most pressing concern is the restoration of five assistant district attorney positions that were eliminated when she took office in 2012, she said. The positions would pay around $40,000 each plus benefits, and Salavantis said the administration has refused to consider her request, even partially, despite a steady increase in crime.
“I’m trying to work amicably with the county. A lawsuit isn’t necessary. We can work on things together, but the response I continue to receive is a straight no,” she said.
Salavantis requested $5.5 million in funds for 2013 and ended up receiving $5 million.
She took issue with Pedri’s correspondence to council, saying, “It’s an interesting position for any attorney, let alone the county solicitor, to call a potential lawsuit frivolous before reading anything outlining the claim.”
Salavantis said the county agreed to increase staff in the Public Defender’s Office in response to a still-pending budgetary legal challenge filed by former Chief Public Defender Al Flora, and her litigation would be similar.
But Attorney Kimberly D. Borland, Flora’s attorney, said the district attorney’s comparisons to the Public Defender’s Office staffing are “very misleading.”
The Public Defender’s Office has a significantly lower $2.7 million budget and the equivalent of 19 full-time attorneys, compared to 26 in the District Attorney’s Office, he said. Assistant public defenders also must represent defendants facing involuntary mental health commitments and in state parole cases — duties not covered by Salavantis’ office, he said.
Assistant public defenders must appear at about 4,000 preliminary hearings annually, compared to 50 to 100 for the District Attorney’s Office, he said. The district attorney has a larger clerical/administrative staff, six trial assistants and 10 detectives, while the public defender has no trial assistants and four investigators, he said.
“We take no position on the district attorney’s request for funding, but the comparisons to the Public Defender’s Office are just not accurate or apt,” Borland said.