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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Has Judge Koury Reneged On Campaign Pledge?

"A judge should avoid even the appearance of impropriety on the bench. ... I would ask to be disqualified from any case in which any contributor to my campaign appears before me as a party. I have made these pledges because I believe it is important that campaign contributions do not influence, or even have the appearance of influencing, a judge’s decisions."

Pretty impressive, eh? That's the solemn promise Michael Koury made during last year's Northampton County judicial race. He made the same pledge in his 2001 and 2003 races. The third time must have been the charm, and Michael was elected. But just three months after being sworn in, Judge Koury may have already gone back on his word.

That's what Bethlehem resident Al Bernotas told Bethlehem City Council last night. He's part of the newly-formed Bethlehem Neighborhood Association, "a group of residents fighting for their residential character." He's currently embroiled in a court battle against a ZHB decision allowing Elias Farmers Market, located on Linden Street, to expand in an RR residential zoning district.

A zoning appeal is scheduled for May, but Bernatos wanted to open the record now. You see, Bethlehem Zoning law does permit a business expansion, but for no more than 50% of its square footage in 1970. Bernatos has evidence, from the Zoning Office itself, that the Elias expansion will be over four times its original size in 1970, when it was just a roadside stand.

That's a lotta' bananas.

Instead of being allowed to open the record, Judge Koury chastised Bernatos during a hearing two weeks ago, for failing to bring a lawyer. He also admonished City Council, which has joined the appeal, asking why they failed to send someone to the Zoning Hearing Board hearing. Bernatos asked City Council last night, "What is the Zoning Hearing Board for? Do they represent the City, or the appellants?"

Bernatos told City Council he has since learned that Judge Koury has social, family and political ties to Joseph and Naziha Elias, who own Elias Farmers' Market. "After the hearing, I looked up public records and sure enough, the Elias family were political contributors. Does that mean the judge made an error in his decision? I don't know, I can't tell you whether he made a good or bad decision, ... but I just saw an undercurrent of favoritism or bias and you can't even measure bias. You don't know what's in someone's head."

State campaign finance records confirm that Joseph and Naziha Elias did contribute $1000 to Koury's judicial campaigns in 2001 and 2003, but not in 2009.

City Council Solicitor Christopher Spadoni, who was in Court with Bernatos in March, acknowledged it was"a fair rendition of what occurred."

Earlier that evening, Glenn Taggart was unanimously reappointed to Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board.

Now this is only $1,000. But even if it is just $1, shouldn't Koury have recused himself if he was interested in keeping his word? Will he claim contributions made in 2001 and 2003 don't count? Will this jurist, who graduated in the top 5% of his law school class, claim he just forgot?

I know one thing. No Josie's Deli for me. His mom will give me the "special", seven-year old tuna salad.
Update (around 9 AM): Contacted this morning, Judge Koury tells me that he was provided a docket showing that the case involved a Ghassan G. Elias, dba Elias Market. Ghassan had never contributed to any of his campaigns, so he felt he could hear the case. He also told me I'm still welcome at Josie's Deli.


Anonymous said...

i suggest the bethlehem resident become more educated on zoning matters. the zoning hearing board is a quasi-judicial body. it doesn't "represent" the way city council does. it interprets the zoning ordinance.

council's decision not to attend (or send representation) should give an indication of the priority this matter had to them. And since the neighbor was in court on a legal matter, self-representation was perhaps ill-advised.

On a technical matter, does the fact that Koury didn't take a contribution from the own in 2009 make a difference? Not sure. My gut says it was a silly pledge. Not sure how the president judge, in distributing cases would feel about having to accomodate that.

Anonymous said...

Who cares about this silly little zoning matter. That farm market has been there for decades, creates jobs and provides a nice service. So what if they want to expand. Will it really have an "impact" on the neighbors? I say no, not at all.

Anonymous said...

Council not attending, may be just due to the fact that their attorney is not that good.

Also, I thought Bernotas had Backenstoe representing him. Why was he not at this hearing?

The market is a nonconforming use. Therefore, expansions of nonconforming uses need to be approved by the ZHB. In this case, the previous expansions went beyond what the zoning ordinance allows, so this expansion could not take place.
Although, I am not sure that the zoning ordinance is legal. The doctrine of natural expansion may allow such an expansion, therefore invalidating the city ordinance.

Bernie O'Hare said...

These comments look like they've been posted to divert attention away from a judge who breaks his compact with the voters obly three months after being appointed to office. It is NOT a silly pledge; it is his word. He could argue he only meant contributions received last year, but it's very disappointing.

Backentstoe does represet Bernatos ... now. Anon 7:46, how do you know that?

Anonymous said...

This is very very serious. Everyone know these families
are close-knit. Koury should not hear anymore of this case.
Elias Market should not expand
to the level he is now seeking. The truck noise at night will
destroy the neighborhood tranquility.

Anonymous said...

"The doctrine of natural expansion may allow such an expansion, therefore invalidating the city ordinance."

Does the MPC actually allow for that?

Anonymous said...

rephrase: it was a stupid campaign pledge. the administrative nightmare this would create for the president judge makes it somewhat unworkable.

publicly finance judicial races.

Anonymous said...

Get off Koury's back already..I thought you'd stop attacking him once the campaign ended. Guess not.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Does the MPC actually allow for that?"

That sounds like a Tea Party argument.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Get off Koury's back already"

I did not support Judge Koury in his third campaign (I did support his first two attempts). I do respect the will of the people, and they had the final say in this matter.

I believe I was fair to Judge Koury. I made a point of calling him and he was gracious enough to speak to me. I got his side of the story, and posted it here.

Whether a judge is true to his word is a matter I consider important, and I make no apology for drawing public attention to this matter.

Anonymous said...

Gus Elias - one of the current owners of Elias Farmer's Market on Linden Street of Bethlehem is the brother of Joe Elias who is the Campaign donor of Koury’s. Elias's Family and Koury's family all go to the same Church - Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Easton. You connect the dots.

Anonymous said...

Which Elias is the one whose son was tragically killed on Airport Road? That Elias owns a huge
fruit and vegetable store in Allentown at the corner of Tilghman and Front.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I believe it is the same family in both cities.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bernie, can you please put a timestamp on the updates to posts you do? I'm curious when the comments here were made vs. when you talked to Koury and put the update in.


Anonymous said...

Given the judge conduct scandals in the Commonwealth that made national news this past year, all Pa. judges should conduct themselves with the highest level of ethics. Judge Koury should not hear this case!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:48,

I've posted the approx. time I spoke w/ Judge Koury this AM. Thanks for the suggestion, and I will remember that for futire updates.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bernie.

Anonymous said...

"Does the MPC actually allow for that?"
From Anon 7:46:
I do not believe it is in the MPC, but case law allows for it. Pre-exisitng nonconforming uses can be expanded under the Doctrine of Natural Expansion. Only the a use nonconformity can be expanded. A dimensional nonconformity cannot be expanded.

Also, Bernie- I know Backenstoe is representing because Bernotas told people.

Lighthouse said...

Personally, I think a County judge runs a frequent chance of having someone who contributed before him/her. It is cause for concern and close scrutiny, but I do not think in and of itself should be cause for an automatic recusal. If the judge professionally and ethically believes he/she can be fair, then hear the case. If there is bias, then that comes out in appeal, and the publicity hurts when they run for re-election...both incentives to self-police, and I think most judges could. For example, Judge Beltrami was able to be fair in the Williams Twp/Chrin case despite demands from the anti-landfill crowd.

That all said, the fact that Judge Koury had a highlighted quote from the 2001 (yes, 8 years old) Express on every single piece of 2009 campaign ad and mailer (ironically even a full page ad the same day the Express did NOT endorse him in 2009)shows that Koury wanted you to believe his statements from 2001 and2009. So, yes, he should be called on the hypocrisy of it, even if it was the contributions were from the same time period.

He made this bed with an unrealistic campaign pledge. Now he doesn't want to sleep in it??

Anonymous said...

Update (around 9 AM): Contacted this morning, Judge Koury tells me that he was provided a docket showing that the case involved a Ghassan G. Elias, dba Elias Market. Ghassan had never contributed to any of his campaigns, so he felt he could hear the case. He also told me I'm still welcome at Josie's Deli.

Oh, really!

Tell him to read his own words...

"...I have made these pledges because I believe it is important that campaign contributions do not ... have the appearance of influencing, a judge’s decisions."

According to Judge Koury's biography, "In 1990, he obtained from Moravian College the degree of
Bachelor of Arts, magna cum laude, with high honors. At the time he graduated, he was ranked 9 out of 327 students, the top 3% of his class. Michael Koury is also a graduate of Villanova University School of Law. Based upon his class rank (6 out of 246 law students, the top 3% of his law class)"

What happened to his memory since then? Did he not know that Ghassan G. Elias was the brother of Joseph Elias, a political contributor, family friend, social acquaintance. How convenient for memory to fail at such a young age.

There is an odor here!

Anonymous said...

This smells very dirty.

Anonymous said...

It seems that by your line of thinking that Mike Koury should remove himself from any case involving anyone of Lebanese roots.
Judge Koury is at the starting gate of his 10 year term. I believe he did a good job as a District Judge, so perhaps we can let him develop a track record before the Judge gets "Judged". Just sayin'.

Bernie O'Hare said...

In his defense, he did look at the docket and checked the names to see if a contributor was involved. So I think he was trying to stick to his pledge. Also, I don't know that this case is permanently assigned to him.

Anonymous said...

Well, now that the honorable judge knows that Ghassan G. Elias is the brother of Joseph Elias, political contributor, owner of the property (along with Ghassan and Naziha), will the good judge disqualify himself from the case, as he should? Will he keep his word?

Anonymous said...

"publicly finance judicial races."

Yep. Put it on the tab.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he looked at the docket because he was forewarned that this case was going to be there on that day and he wanted to make sure he was the judge that got it!!! Who really knows what was in his head????? What is it they say, "People that pray together, stay together", right?????

Because of the promises he made regarding contributions before he became a Judge and now because of his close affiliation with the Elias Klan, he should recind his possibly bias decision and stay far, far away from any future cases involving that family. How can he possibly be fair when we all know that Money Talks and so does friendship!!! Give me a break......

Anonymous said...

Knowing Mike Koury I have no doubt in my mind that Judge Koury will act fairly and impartially towards everyone who comes before him. He will base his decision on the law and the facts.

Be prepared when you go before him and you won't have a problem. Try and pull a fast one on him and he is smarter then that to let you get away with it.

Fred Schoenenberger
Constable, Wilson Borough