By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — A Union County jury Tuesday found Donald “Larry” Zerbe guilty of theft by extortion, but cleared the suspended Hartleton police chief of two other third-degree felonies in a “fines-for-the-playground” scheme.
It took the jury of seven women and five men three hours to reach its unanimous verdict, during which it asked Judge Michael Hudock four times to clarify elements of the law it needed to meet for the decision.
“I wouldn’t say I’m happy, but I’m not unhappy,” Zerbe told media waiting in the lobby of the Union County Courthouse following the two-day trial and verdict. “I don’t feel I did anything wrong.”
Zerbe’s attorney, Hank Clarke, of Pottsville, said the verdict was split “just like the community during this. We’re pleased with the finding but troubled by the one verdict,” which Clarke immediately moved to dismiss, saying the commonwealth didn’t meet its burden of proof.
Hudock denied the motion, and Clarke said he will pursue other “post-trial options.”
The theft by extortion verdict means Zerbe is guilty of offering offending motorists an option to donate to the Hartleton Playground Fund in lieu of their speeding citations, which then were never filed with the district judge or were filed and then withdrawn.
The plan allowed Hartleton officers to give motorists information to contact Zerbe, and he’d arrange for their fines’ disposition.
Zerbe was found not guilty of conspiracy, and of improperly filing citations — the fines of which would have been dispersed among state-mandated channels.
The investigation found 33 instances of the playground fund option out of more than 1,500 citations issued in four years, or roughly 2 percent, Clarke said.
Defense testimony wrapped up earlier than expected Tuesday and ended with Zerbe taking the stand. Under questioning from Clarke, Zerbe admitted he started the playground donations option for violators around 2005. He said it served three purposes, the main one being that it helped drivers who couldn’t afford to gain points and possibly lose their licenses.
The playground fund was the second beneficiary, and the police department the third as disposing the fines this way kept the officers out of court and saved the department money.
It was a morning of colorful testimony Tuesday, with an expletive-laden memo read that Zerbe had issued last year. During the testimony of Hartleton police officer Steven Davies, the memo was read, expletives and all, telling officers to stop issuing 31-11s — essentially reducing a speeding citation to a warning — because it was costing the borough money.
The next officer to do this “will be looking for an (expletive) job,” Zerbe said in the memo.
The defense case put forth that while Zerbe may have established a playground fund, it was officer Matt Trapane who wrote most of the citations that were disposed of through playground fund donations. Trapane had testified for the prosecution Monday, saying he was following Zerbe’s orders in offering motorists information to contact Zerbe about the playground option.
Zerbe’s defense was that he acted within his role as a police enforcement officer, who is essentially a prosecutor when issuing a speeding citation or negotiating the charge before a district judge. As such, Zerbe had the right to make “plea agreements,” in this case the playground donations, to dispose the citations.
That the money went to the playground instead of the commonwealth, then subsequently be dispersed among several channels — including Union County and the borough — was not a crime, Clarke said.
Zerbe said that he merely advised the officers that the violators were open to the playground option and that it was up to them individually whether to follow through on it. However, he said Trapane administered the offers because he didn’t want to appear in court, and said a benefit of the playground fund was that it kept Hartleton officers out of court.
Officers who spent as little as five minutes in court were paid for two hours of court time.
It remains to be seen whether further charges are coming against others in the case, said Shawn Kofluk, a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police criminal investigation division who filed the charges. Kofluk noted he wouldn’t rule it out but would not comment further.
Both days in court, Zerbe had support from several Harlteton officers and borough officials, including Mayor James Dorman, who was scheduled to testify Tuesday but didn’t.
“Obviously, we’re a bit disappointed with the verdict,” Dorman said after the trial, having hoped for full acquittal, “but we’re happy at the same time. We feel (Zerbe) did nothing wrong. He’s a good man. We continue to support him.”
Zerbe is still suspended from duty, and it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to resume the police chief mantle given he was found guilty of a third-degree felony.
The future of the Hartleton police also is unclear.
During the trial Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Crossland noted Borough Council meeting minutes from June in which Councilwoman Carole Oldt questioned the economic viability of a police department there.
Zerbe himself testified that among his tasks was keeping costs to a minimum and that the playground fund option alleviated police officers from having to appear in court, thus saving money.
“We obviously have some decisions to make,” Dorman said of borough government, but quickly added the borough needs its own police department “to provide protection. Speeders are always an issue. We’re on a major travel route with 45.”