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In DA's Race, Political Rally Causes Stir Three Days Later

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Lisa Middleman, an independent candidate for District Attorney, speaks to supporters and reporters in the Allegheny County Courthouse Monday, Oct. 7, 2019.

Two members of Allegheny County Council say they will file an ethics complaint against independent District Attorney candidate Lisa Middleman for holding a political event in the Allegheny County Courthouse Monday – although such events are not unprecedented, and county officials said Middleman’s event presented no security concerns.

A provision of the county ethics code requires that if county employees want to engage in political activity, they must do so “as private citizens, away from County workplaces, out of uniform and during non-working hours.”

“Ms. Middleman is running to be the highest law enforcement officer in the county,” said Republican at-large county councilor Sam DeMarco, during a Thursday-afternoon press conference held inside the courthouse itself. But she "doesn’t seem to understand or want to play by the rules that all of us as officials and as employees here in Allegheny County are bound by.”

“If she’s going to be leading us, she needs to abide by what everybody else does,” agreed Denise Ranalli Russell, an outgoing Democrat who represents county council District 13.

Monday’s campaign event drew slightly over a dozen people around noon, who heard Middleman decry District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s handling of a case in which four teenagers were incarcerated wrongly for months. Middleman, who works part-time as a public defender, said during the event that she was on her lunch break.

DeMarco said that even if Middleman hadn’t been politicking during working hours, her campaign hadn’t sought a permit for the event, and said that created security concerns.

“The biggest issue here, from my perspective, is that the sheriff’s office had to mobilize,” DeMarco said. “We’ve been through a period here over the past couple years where we’ve experience protests here in our community, and some of these things have developed almost like a flash-type of affair.”

On Thursday, county officials did acknowledge some early uncertainty about the nature of the event – it was billed as an “emergency rally and press conference" – and how many people might attend. But the sheriff’s office said it presented no concerns.

“We didn’t do anything that wasn’t routine,” said Kevin Kraus, a spokesman for the office. "We didn’t know how many people were coming, so like we do any other time this happens, we reassign people to different parts of the courthouse strategically." But he said the situation was handled with deputies already on hand at the building, and entailed no significant disruption or expense. No other security was called in, and the event was orderly.

“There were no issues,” said Kraus.

It is not unusual for political events, and press conferences, to take place in the courthouse, and the site – especially its courtyard – is sometimes used as a backdrop by political candidates of both parties. It is less common for a politician to use the indoor gallery that faces Grant Street during business hours, but county officials confirm the spot has been used for such purposes before.

The county does issue a permit for use of the spot during business hours, though the permit does not bar political activity and focuses largely on gauging whether any staffing or equipment is necessary.

Darwin Leuba, a spokesperson for the Middleman campaign, acknowledged the campaign did not seek a permit, which he said was originally going to be held outside the courthouse but was moved because of rain. In any case, he said, “It’s a public space. Anyone can go there, and it’s owned by the residents and taxpayers.” The event required no logistical support, he said.

The campaign sought to turn the tables on its accusers, accusing them of politicking on the taxpayer dime. A late-afternoon statement argued that DeMarco and Ranalli Russell had used county resources – a conference room in the courthouse as well as a county council email – to stage an event “during county work hours to launch a false political attack.”

Zappala is a Democrat who will also appear on the GOP ticket next month, thanks to a successful write-in bid in May. Middleman is running well to Zappala’s left, with support from progressives who helped Liv Bennett defeat Ranalli Russell during the Democratic primary. So neither she nor DeMarco, a vocal conservative who chairs the county’s Republican Committee, were likely allies. But they both rejected suspicions that their own use of the courthouse was political.

“As county council members, it’s our job to take and manage and oversee county real estate,” DeMarco said. “I don’t see any campaign signage behind me. I don’t see a bunch of people out here that I’ve invited in other than you folks from the press. … So there’s a vast difference.”