The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office didn’t have much to say when it released a scathing grand-jury report on how the city of Pittsburgh investigates police shootings last Friday.
“We believe that these two reports are self-explanatory and as such, we will not be commenting on them,” spokesman Mike Manko said in a one-sentence email attached to the grand jury’s 124-page findings
One business day later, however, District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s political campaign was a bit more forthcoming.
“On Friday, my office filed a grand jury report detailing serious conduct issues by police,” read a fundraising email the campaign sent Monday to supporters. “[M]y office has made it very clear: Any law enforcement officers or government officials who obstruct investigations into critical incidents, such as the police shooting of a suspect, will be subject to a grand jury investigation. … Your contribution of $250, $100 or whatever works best for you will go a long way toward our efforts to keep our justice system working for the people.”
Observers say there is nothing unethical about such a pitch. But the e-mail angered at least one person who received it: Paul Boas, who is also the lawyer representing Fraternal Order of Police Local 1 president Robert Swartzwelder. Swartzwelder was blasted in the report for taking steps to hinder the DA’s investigations of two police shootings, steps that included removing the officers from police headquarters before they could be questioned. Boas said Swartzwelder was fulfilling his duty to represent union members, and to ensure they weren't questioned without lawyers present.
Zappala faces re-election next year, and after the grand jury report was released, Boas said, “I felt this whole thing was political. Any doubts that I may have had were laid to rest when the first business day after the report was released, I see this letter talking about the report and then asking for money for the campaign.”
“I like Mr. Zappala but I think this was a bad decision,” Boas added.
Erin McClelland, a strategist and spokesperson for Zappala’s campaign, made no apologies for the email.
“If you have a young man that has been shot by a police officer, that organization cannot investigate itself," she said. "And the people of Allegheny County have the right to know exactly what happened and whether that was a justifiable use of force."
McClelland noted that “there was nothing political coming out of the District Attorney’s office, considering they didn’t do so much as a tweet” about the report. But voters, she said, “want to know, ‘What are you doing? What do you stand for?’” The Zappala campaign “is going to make sure that the people of Allegheny County … know exactly what he stands for and what he does.”
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said Zappala has distinguished himself by not politicizing high-profile cases.
“What Steve Zappala has been very, very good about – unlike a lot of district attorneys – is never using the criminal law to help him politically. … For example, he never runs on the death penalty. There are probably a handful of district attorneys that don’t, and he is one of them. We are very fortunate in Allegheny County that we have a professional and nonpartisan district attorneys’ office, and we better appreciate it because a lot of people don’t have it.”
Sending out a fundraising email based on a just-issued grand jury report “may seem unseemly, but it doesn’t raise any serious ethical issues,” Ledewitz said.
He noted that while the grand jury report was “pointed” in its criticism of Swartzwelder, it did not recommend charges. “I would be concerned if he had sent out a fundraising letter that said ‘I charge X with a crime,’ or ‘I got a conviction against X.’ But he doesn’t do that.”
One reason the email raised some eyebrows is that Zappala is known as a distinctly low-key campaigner.
“He’s not really into campaigning,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant who worked on Republican Joe Peters’ 2016 campaign for state attorney general. Zappala was one of three Democrats running that year: The race was ultimately won by Democrat Josh Shapiro.
Still, Nicholas said it made sense for Zappala to step up his game before the 2019 primary. Zappala is likely to face a challenge from Turahn Jenkins, a former deputy director in the Allegheny County public defender's office who is hoping to capitalize on energy from voters of color and progressive activists. Jenkins launched his effort amid protests over the death of Antwon Rose at the hands of an East Pittsburgh police officer: Some activists said Zappala hadn't prosecuted such cases harshly enough, though he ultimately filed homicide charges against the officer involved in the Rose case.
It would be Zappala's first real challenge in two decades, and his most recent campaign finance report showed him sitting on $44,299 at the end of last year.
“There’s a dance going on among Democrats, where you see a tension between younger, more diverse Democrats versus what we’d call the ethnic rowhouse Democrats” made up of working-class, more socially conservative Democrats, Nicholas said. “When you are looking at that younger, more liberal demographic, they are generally thought of as being less trusting of police.”
Zappala also broadcast his willingness to police the police during the 2016 statewide campaign. His campaign aired TV ads in Philadelphia that touted his success at getting a Pittsburgh Housing Authority officer to plead guilty to charges stemming from the shooting death of black motorist Jerry Jackson.
McClelland said that aspect of Zappala’s career, as well as his support of other criminal-justice reforms, has been widely overlooked. She said the campaign will ensure that voters “know not just the name [Zappala], but they will know him the way we know him, and what he has accomplished.”
“If he does this all the time, you can say, ‘Maybe he is political,’” Nicholas said of the fundraising email, “But if you know the primary in May will decide your future, you’ve gotta start doing press releases and asking for money.”
In any case, he added, during this summer’s contentious confirmation of Brett Kavanuagh to the Supreme Court, “There were Democratic Senators during the Supreme Court hearings who were literally putting out fundraising emails in real time: ‘I will be speaking at 11:25, so at 11:30, push the send button.’ If that’s okay, I don’t see how doing something like [the Zappala campaign’s email] is a problem.”