By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Suspended Hartleton Police Chief Donald “Larry” Zerbe was not within his authority when he offered cited motorists a “fines for the playground” option that would make their speeding violations go away, the commonwealth put forth in its case Monday that saw six witnesses testify in Union County Court.
Zerbe, 68, of Laurelton, takes the stand in his own defense today, one of four witnesses his attorney, Hank Clark, of Pottsville, plans to call.
Zerbe’s defense is that his duty as a police officer makes him a prosecutor of sorts when it comes to traffic violations, Clark asserted, and he may dispose of them as he sees fit. Clark likened the practice to police officers letting a motorist go with a warning instead of a speeding ticket.
That was the case Clark tried to make when trooper Shawn Kofluk, of the state police criminal investigation division, took the stand. Kofluk, who led the investigation against Zerbe, testified for most of the afternoon.
A former state police “road trooper” for five years himself, Kofluk said an officer has discretion when it comes to writing up a motorist but didn’t liken it to the “plea deal” analogy Clark used, saying that usually was associated more with criminal behavior.
But when asked who Zerbe hurt when he allegedly diverted citation money to the Hartleton Playground Fund — more than $5,000 in four years — Kofluk quickly responded the commonwealth and, to some degree, Union County. Pennsylvania designates those monies under Titles 42 and 75 for certain funds, which include emergency services.
“Troopers don’t handle money for reasons like what we are here for today,” Kofluk said. “Our job is to enforce the law, not decide where the money goes.”
Assistant District Attorney Jeffrey Crossland rested the prosecution’s case Monday following a full day of testimony, including that of James Anderson, of State College, and Jaime Carpenter, of Spring Mills, two motorists whose Oct. 8, 2012, citations brought the “fines for the playground” scheme to light.
Anderson testified he was cited going 53 mph in a 35-mph zone while driving a work truck back to State College. With the citation, Hartleton Police Officer Matt Trapane gave him Zerbe’s business card, saying Zerbe “offered to some people” an option of making a donation to the playground fund in lieu of the citation and subsequent fines and points, and possible hike in car insurance rates.
Anderson said he called Zerbe that night, and the chief allegedly said if Anderson would make a $150 donation to the playground fund — his fine was $155 — “we can make this go away.”
Carpenter testified that Trapane stopped her that day for doing 48 mph in a 35-mph zone. He also gave her Zerbe’s business card and told her to call him about writing a check to the playground fund instead of paying the fine.
This made her “leery,” she said, “it didn’t sit right with me,” and she subsequently called District Judge Jeffrey Mensch’s office to see if the citation was there.
It was not, testified Roberta Wagner, an administrator in Mensch’s office. Neither were 33 other citations she was asked to check when the investigation began. Wagner explained to the court the procedure for citations from filing to fines. At times, a filed citation can be withdrawn by the officer, she said, for reasons he doesn’t need to declare.
Ultimately, 18 citations were filed and withdrawn after those cited opted to make the donation; 15 citations were never filed, Wagner found.
Payments for the missing citations were documented in a ledger kept by Hartleton Borough Secretary Wendy Styers, who testified she didn’t know where the donations for the playground fund were coming from. In fact, she said once learning of the fines-for-playground scheme, she didn’t deposit two checks she received for the fund, feeling it wasn’t right.
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.
Trapane, who also testified Monday, said he’d been with the borough police about eight months in 2008 when he became aware of the fines-for-playground plan. A motorist he had cited called Zerbe, he said, asking for a break on the citation. It was then that Zerbe told him about giving some people the option of making a donation to the playground fund in exchange for the ticket, which also would have included points and a likely rise in the driver’s car insurance.
The trial resumes today at 9 a.m. in Union County Court. Beside Zerbe, other expected witnesses are Hartleton Mayor James Dorman, borough solicitor Mark Lemon and Mensch.