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Doven goes on offense over Hallam's past in county council race

 Allegheny County Council candidate Joanna Doven at a podium.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council candidate Joanna Doven attacked rival Bethany Hallam's past in an April 12 press conference.

The race for Allegheny County Council’s at-large Democratic seat took an ugly turn on Wednesday morning, when challenger Joanna Doven accused first-term incumbent Bethany Hallam of selling heroin prior to taking office — an accusation that Hallam rejected and that one criminal defense attorney who frequently handles drug cases called a “horrible” attack.

Doven also surfaced stills from a years-old video, which appears to show Hallam grabbing for a man’s crotch as friends jeered. Hallam said the video was part of a playful series taped by friends years ago, but Doven called it “appalling and embarrassing.”

“What's so frustrating is nobody is holding this person accountable. It's absolutely unbelievable,” Doven said.

Doven had previewed some of these allegations during a Saturday-morning Twitter storm in mid-January. On Wednesday, she gave reporters portions of police affidavits from three separate incidents in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

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Two of the incidents include allegations that Hallam initially provided a false name to police. In the second of those, which took place in 2013, West View officers reported responding to a call involving a woman passed out behind the wheel of a car in a 7-Eleven parking lot. The affidavit says they found Hallam in the car with hypodermic needles, a digital scale, and 130 empty “stamp bags” that formerly contained heroin, marked with eight different labels ranging from “Versace” to “Justin Bieber.”

“I wonder who Bethany Hallam was selling drugs to with a label like ‘Justin Bieber,’” said Doven, who called the presence of potential drug paraphernalia such as a digital scale “unbelievable.”

In the 2014 incident, a Hampton Township officer alleges that police, acting on an anonymous tip, set up a sale between Hallam and an undercover officer, paying $70 for Suboxone, a prescription opiate often used to treat opioid addiction.

Of the undercover sting, Doven said law enforcement “doesn’t utilize this kind of resource for small-time dealers.”

Hallam has never made any secret of having spent time behind bars, including a five-month stint in the Allegheny County Jail, nor of having a substance-use problem that she said stemmed from using prescription opioids to treat a sports injury.

That life story, in fact, was at the heart of her 2019 campaign, something she brought up with a WESA reporter before he had a chance to ask about it. And her experience behind bars has informed her often-contentious questioning of Allegheny County Jail Warden Orlando Harper while representing county council on the Jail Oversight Board.

On Wednesday, Hallam strongly rejected Doven’s allegation that she had been a drug dealer, calling it “dishonest for my opponent to try to use my past struggles with addiction as some sort of 'gotcha' breaking-news moment when I talk about it every opportunity I get.

“I've been in recovery for seven years now, and I turned my life around and I have never shied away from my past,” she said. “It’s one of the unique experiences that guides me as a legislator.”

Hallam has publicly acknowledged selling suboxone to an undercover police officer; on Wednesday she told WESA that she was “selling my own Suboxone to support my drug addiction.” But she said she had “never even been accused of selling heroin — ever.”

“Why would I have empty stamp bags if I was selling heroin?” she asked.

Defense attorneys who spoke with WESA said that without more evidence than Doven presented, it’s hard to imagine prosecuting Hallam as a dealer.

Joe Otte, a criminal defense attorney whose practice includes a sizable number of drug cases, said 130 stamp bags is “not a lot.”

“I've had clients who use three stamps before getting out of bed in the morning,” Otte said. “People who are heavy users will just accrue hundred and hundreds of empty stamp bags.”

Otte said that if anything, the presence of more than a half-dozen different stamps on those bags was evidence that Hallam was not a dealer.

“One of the things you look at when trying to determine whether it was for sale or for personal use is the package,” he said. “If they all had the same stamp and were bundled together, that would be more of an indication of possession with intent to deliver.”

Similarly, he said the presence of a digital scale proved little because in heroin deals, the unit of sale is the stamp bag itself. Scales would be more useful in buying and selling marijuana “where the question is whether you have an eighth [of an ounce] or not.”

Otte added that he was surprised that a candidate would accuse a rival of drug dealing on the basis of such evidence.

“That’s horrible,” he said. “I don’t have a preference for either of these candidates, but that is a terrible thing to do.”

Hallam has never pleaded to or been convicted of a crime more serious than a misdemeanor. Asked why prosecutors would settle for such minor charges if Hallam was a major drug trafficker, Doven suggested that reporters ask Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

“Those are questions that the D.A. can answer.”

A spokesperson for Zappala’s office said it couldn’t comment on a specific case, but said non-violent drug cases were often diverted from the criminal justice system.

On at least one occasion this campaign season — a February gathering of Democratic committee members in a handful of mostly Black wards in Pittsburgh — Zappala cited Hallam’s misdemeanors as evidence that his office didn’t take a needlessly punitive approach toward drug offenses.

In any case, Hallam has not been charged criminally since the mid-2010s, though Doven said Hallam still showed bad judgment. She cited a recent outburst in which Hallam used a vulgar anatomical reference to refer to a fellow member of the Jail Oversight Board, Common Pleas Judge Elliot Howsie.

“You don't go to a Jail Oversight Board meeting and assault somebody on the board verbally and not apologize for it,” Doven said.

She was joined in that criticism Wednesday by Bob Macey, a longtime foe of Hallam on council who said he was backing Doven because “I'd like to bring some civility. Respect, decorum and responsibility for Allegheny County Council.”

‘Other officials have been burned at the stake’

At the press conference, Doven also displayed still images of Hallam wrestling with a man while on her knees, which Doven’s visual aid labeled “sexual assault.”

Doven said the images were taken from a video that she called “disturbing. … Other elected officials have been burned at the stake for much less egregious” behavior.

Doven said she had not spoken to the man and did not know who he was or what the context for the video might have been.

The video began circulating online more than two years ago. The 34-second clip shows Hallam on her knees, apparently reaching for the man’s crotch as he repeatedly fends her off and onlookers joke about the scene.

Hallam said the video was one of a series of videos she shot with her friends not long after completing recovery several years ago. “They were called ‘Raunchy Wrestling’ videos that we would put on Facebook,” she said. “I was like a guest appearance,” while the man in them was “a recurring character.”

Hallam said she hadn’t spoken to the man in years. WESA has identified the man in the video but is not identifying him. He declined to comment on the incident.

For her part, Hallam said Doven’s attacks point up “the larger issue at hand” about Doven. Instead of discussing issues, she said, Doven has chosen to “act like my past — that I talk about openly for years and years and years — is some sort of breaking news to try to attack me.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.