I guess it's only natural that they were besides themselves with joy last week. Word leaked out that, in a Ron Angle dispute concerning his father's estate, the Register of Wills had doubts about the validity of a Will Ron offered for probate. She preferred an earlier Will, signed through a car window, prepared by an attorney who incorrectly told Ron's father that he had to see him if he wanted to revoke it. (I've told you that story here).
When the Register of Wills, who is neither a lawyer nor a judge, made her decision, she had help. Assistant County Solicitor Chris Spadoni, a partisan Democrat who also serves as Solicitor to Bethlehem City Council, drafted her decision. And although the Register wanted to keep a lid on things until the families were notified, word spread like wildfire. At Thursday night's Council meeting, Democratic members had copies. And right after the meeting, a portion of the decision was anonymously placed on a local hate blog.
Now I understand that even though Angle is Council President, he should be subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else. But he's also entitled to the same decency. This was a family matter, and all the stories and insinuations really hurt his wife, who has no interest in politics. He and his family were victimized.
Before the decision was ever made public or Angle was even provided with his own copy, stories appeared in both local papers. And CACLV Executive Director Alan Jennings, for some strange reason, called papers to insist they need to ask the DA about filing fraud charges against Angle.
County Solicitor Karl Longenbach vehemently denies any impropriety in his office, and I'm informed that Assistant County Solicitor Chris Spadoni has said much the same thing. Neither has ever lied to me, but even they must admit circumstances are very suspicious. Longenbach will freely admit he has no regard for Angle, and just represented Jolly Joe Timmer in litigation involving Angle. Spadoni told a friend of the Angles she should have nothing to do with them. Spadoni is not listed as the Assistant Solicitor for the Register of Wills, yet somehow ended up with the case.
In the end, it's unlikely we'll ever know where that leak originated. But what happened to Angle is an indication of a growing problem within the Solicitor's office. That office will cost Northampton County $419,300 this year ($390,600 for personnel). It is manned by a seven attorneys, only one of whom is a full-time employee. Performance there is uneven.
Over the past several years, these lawyers are responsible for several miscues that have occasionally led the Stoffa administration in the wrong direction. They've sometimes neglected to send someone to cover Council meetings. Spadoni ignored one citizen's calls for a year, until he had to retain a lawyer to do a job that should have been performed by the Solicitor. They insisted on representing the Register of Wills in an estate contest involving our high profile Council President, but sent another high profile Will dispute directly to a judge. Lawyers in that office have expressed animosity towards Angle, but nevertheless advised the Register of Wills in a matter that directly involved him. In insisting on doing so, they compromised themselves because Angle has a direct say in their budget and staffing.
In posts next week, I plan to go into more detail in the problems of that troubled office. But for today, I'll limit my criticism to just one of its problems.
Northampton County's Home Rule Charter is very clear -- it explicitly bars its Solicitor from performing legal services for any other municipality. That prohibition had always been interpreted to apply to assistant county solicitors as well. After all, what's bad for the goose should be bad for the gander. And then Glenn Reibman was elected County Executive.
He expanded the solicitor's office with numerous assistants (who paid for their jobs with regular campaign contributions) and it didn't matter whether these lawyers were also municipal solicitors so long as the campaign checks kept coming. Suddenly, the Home Rule Charter was turned on its head. Since it didn't specifically exclude assistant solicitors from working for other municipalities, it must be permitted. Right? I guess it doesn't matter that, when the Home Rule Charter was first adopted, there were no assistant solicitors at all.
Now here's a neat trick. When Northampton County Solicitor Jack Spirk was appointed Bethlehem's Solicitor, all he did was resign his position in Northampton County, only to be immediately reappointed as Assistant County Solicitor. Pretty nifty, huh?
The practice continues today. First Assistant County Solicitor Dave Backenstoe has served as solicitor in Lehigh, Moore, and Plainfield Townships, as well as Hellertown and Walnutport Boroughs. Assistant County Solicitor Chris Spadoni represents Bethlehem's City Council.
Not long ago, Spadoni represented the County at a Council meeting during which a dispute with Bethlehem occupied much of the meeting. How could he give advice to the administration and still remain loyal to Bethlehem? Council adopted a resolution that night authorizing the County to sue Bethlehem, if necessary. So would Spadoni be preparing a lawsuit that he himself would later defend?
The obvious intent of the Home Rule Charter is that “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” An attorney who represents both a county and one or more of its municipalities has divided loyalties. And there will be plenty of other opportunities for actual conflicts of interest on matters like road improvements, the sale of real estate, the construction and operation of public buildings, litigation, or recreational facilities, to name a few.
Next week, I'll tell you about the property owner who received a notice that his property would be sold at tax sale for unpaid taxes accrued by a previous bankrupt estate. Over the course of a year, Assistant County Solicitor Spadoni failed to return a single call.