Gene Vittone

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

District Attorney Gene Vittone

The Washington County district attorney is seeking a court order allowing his office to delay a move planned for later this month unless there are additional security measures in its new building.

The civil complaint filed by District Attorney Gene Vittone and Assistant District Attorney John Friedmann on Friday asks for a temporary injunction preventing the county – plus Commissioners Larry Maggi, Diana Irey Vaughan and Harlan Shober – from “forcing” their office to move into the Caldwell Building across the street from the courthouse without security measures that at least match those in the courthouse and other improvements to make it a “safe, compliant and accessible workplace” under relevant laws.

A hearing on the request is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday before Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Lucas.

First Assistant District Attorney Dennis Paluso said the office supports plans ultimately to consolidate it in one location.

“We’re hoping to have adequate notice before the move in order to allow us to have the least disruption to our services and ... a rational approach to providing our county district attorney’s office with security,” he added.

The DA’s office is split among four different areas of the courthouse building and nearby Courthouse Square.

Earlier this month, Scott Fergus, county director of administration, told Vittone in an email that Vittone’s main office on the first floor of the courthouse had a “firm moving date” of Aug. 24 to relocate to the second floor of the Caldwell Building across the street.

Fergus, another defendant, said the move would be a “temporary,” one- to three-year measure to deal with the “emergency of the situation.”

The county closed on the property for $400,000 – $30,000 more than the price quoted last year because of upgrades the last owner made in the interim – to buy the former department store on Aug. 6 as part of preparations for an additional common pleas judge, Traci McDonald-Kemp, to take the bench. McDonald-Kemp was appointed early by Gov. Tom Wolf in late June after she won both major-party primaries a month earlier.

Maggi said McDonald-Kemp, who will be sworn in on Aug. 30 as the county’s seventh common pleas judge, is “taking office about three or four months earlier than we expected.”

He stressed that the courts, not county government, make decisions about where judges’ and other court offices go.

“We provide funding and resources to complete their job, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We do not decide who goes where. We do not have a say in that. And I am not familiar with this action.”

Court Administrator Patrick Grimm said on Friday morning he hadn’t had a chance to review the filing.

“I can’t comment because it’s a pending legal proceeding,” he said.

The filing says that commissioners knew for the past two years that the county would have to accomodate a seventh judge in the courthouse. They authorized the purchase of the Caldwell Building in November but didn’t go through with the sale or make any improvements to the building until this month, the complaint adds.

The two public entrances to the courthouse are guarded by sheriff’s deputies. People coming in must pass through metal detectors, and their bags are conveyed through an X-ray machine.

The complaint says threats of violence against prosecutors are “not a rare occurrence.” Still, county officials have “no intention to and are categorically refusing” to authorize those same measures for the new location.

It also points to a 2018 consultant’s report that said the Caldwell Building’s fire equipment was last inspected six years earlier, and noted water damage on ceiling tiles near sprinkler heads, “non-(Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant bathrooms” and a fire escape in need of repairs.

“Petitioners are being forced by defendants into an unsafe structure without adequate fire protection, accessibility, or any semblance of security to which petitioners are familiar as court-related employees of the County of Washington,” the complaint says.

Maggi said the plans are a “work in progress.”

“Until the last couple weeks we weren’t sure where people were going ... or what types of security measures are necessary,” he said.

The doors to Courthouse Square – where the county public defender’s office as well as some DA’s staff are housed – aren’t guarded or equipped with metal detectors.

“I think there should be security at Courthouse Square,” Paluso said, “but the sheriff’s department is located on the third floor, and for the public, the district attorney’s office is the main office on the first floor of the courthouse.”

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