The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

August 30, 2013

Hartleton police chief rejects plea agreement; asks for jury trial

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG — Suspended Hartleton police Chief Donald “Larry” Zerbe, facing charges of theft and conspiracy in a fines-for-the-playground scheme, did not enter a plea agreement as expected Thursday and has opted for a jury trial in Union County Court.

Zerbe’s attorney, Hank J. Clark, of Pottsville, said outside the Lewisburg courthouse that his client maintains his innocence. Zerbe and Clark were instructed to be at jury selection Oct. 28.

Zerbe allegedly gave offending motorists the option of donating $150 to the Hartleton Playground Fund instead of paying a ticket.

“Chief Zerbe didn’t break the law,” Clark told reporters with Zerbe by his side after the court appearance. Zerbe was “exercising the discretion afforded to him” in his position as Hartleton police chief, which Zerbe held for more than 30 years until the Borough Council suspended him without pay in May.

Zerbe was charged in April.

By disposing tickets in this manner, Zerbe didn’t clog up the courts with cases “and he was helping the children of his community,” Clark said. “The jury will see that this is the truth,” he said, declining to give any “sneak peeks of the defense’s case.”

Zerbe, 68, of Laurelton, faces three third-degree felony counts — two of theft and one of conspiracy — and two misdemeanor charges of obstruction and official oppression in the case.

The alleged scheme ran between Jan. 1, 2008, and Nov. 24, 2012, and diverted $5,024 to the playground fund, court documents state.

Neither Zerbe nor Clark responded to a question about what happened to those funds.

Clark told President Judge Michael Sholley he likely would need a full day to present his case. Sholley said he’d consider scheduling three days for the trial.

D. Peter Johnson, Union County district attorney, said he did not know of Zerbe’s intent until Zerbe’s attorney announced it in court before what was scheduled to be a pre-trial conference/guilty plea, as court documents stated. The Daily Item reviewed the documents at the Union County prothonotary’s office Aug. 7.

Asked if it was possible to have the trial outside of Union County, Johnson said he had not considered that and has faith that a fair and impartial jury can be convened inside the county.

Clark noted the “community outcry” against the charges faced by Zerbe.

“People in the community are telling him to fight this,” Clark said. “We feel very confident in our case.”