EXTON — A Northumberland County constable from Zerbe Township has been charged by a Chester County detective for allegedly using his elected position and authority for personal profit.
Michael Robel, 58, of 108 Birch Road, is facing felonies of bribery, conflict of interest and accepting improper influence and a misdemeanor of statement of financial interests.
Bernard Sean Martin, of the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, claims that Robel used his law enforcement position for private security interests related to the Mariner East Pipeline project and failed to report his $27,995 income for 2018, as required by the state Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.
Also charged as a result of the investigation was Chester County Constable Kareem Johnson, 47, of Coatesville.
Records show both Johnson and Robel were subcontracted to work security by a Harrisburg company doing business as Raven Knights. The constables were required and asked to provide copies of their state constable certification cards and firearm cards as a condition of employment.
Robel was arraigned in front of Magisterial District Judge John Bailey on $25,000 unsecured bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 29 at the district office in Exton.
“We cannot have elected law enforcement officials hiring themselves out and using their public positions for personal profit,” Charles Gaza, Chester County district attorney chief of staff, was quoted in a press release. “It undermines the integrity and independence of law enforcement and our government.”
In December 2018, Martin began to investigate criminal activity related to the construction of the pipeline by Energy Transfer and subsidiaries Sunoco Logistics and Sunoco Pipeline. During the investigation, information was developed that state constables were being hired to use their authority while patrolling the pipeline.
The investigation revealed that West Whiteland Township police detailed “numerous” contacts with security personnel who identified themselves as state constables to township officers. At least one resident who had an easement with the pipeline company reported individuals on his property who were armed and identified by a Sunoco subcontractor as state constables.
The complaint states that on Jan. 21 Robel approached Martin, who was investigating a subsidence caused by a sinkhole. Robel, who was wearing a “patrol-style” duty belt with a firearm, allegedly displayed his state constable badge and informed the detective, who was wearing plainclothes, that he had to move his vehicle that was parked on a public street.
Martin identified himself as a detective and responded that he would move the vehicle once finished.
During another contact later that day, Robel told the detective he was employed as a subcontractor for Sunoco and that the company wanted certified constables in uniform as private security for the project.
Martin concluded that Robel used his badge of authority as an elected state constable for private pecuniary gain, used his authority to interfere with the rights of people in public places and failed for report his income on interest forms.
In a January, District Attorney Tom Hogan said his office had opened a criminal investigation into who bears legal responsibility for the sinkholes and was also attempting to determine who hired out-of-county constables and authorized them to “act as if they had legal authority” in Chester County.
Hogan stated this week that there is “a troubling aspect to this investigation” in that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is charged with protecting residents, but “has retained criminal defense lawyers to represent them in this investigation, and have insisted all communications go through those lawyers.”
“In almost 30 years working in the criminal justice system, I have never seen a state of federal agency retain criminal defense lawyers to communicate with the prosecutors that the agencies were supposed to be helping,” Hogan stated this week in a press release. “It raises questions for the public about what exactly is going on with the Mariner East Pipeline and Pennsylvania’s government. Gov. (Tom) Wolf needs to answer these questions.”
Constables are public officers elected or appointed to their position. Constables are elected at the municipal level; however, state law governs constables.
A constable is an officer empowered to carry out the business of the statewide district court system by serving warrants of arrest, mental health warrants, transporting prisoners, service of summons, complaints and subpoenas, and enforcing protection from abuse orders as well as orders of eviction and judgement levies.
A Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge may remove a constable for acts of oppression or misfeasance, which is defined as a breach of a positive statutory duty or performing a discretionary act with an improper or corrupt motive.