A national public interest law firm and two Pennsylvania-based law professors have filed an ethics complaint asking a state disciplinary board to investigate allegations of improper conduct by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
The complaint, filed Tuesday by the Washington D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps, along with University of Pittsburgh law professor Jules Lobel and Penn Carey School of Law Senior Fellow David Rudovsky, cites media reports regarding two separate incidents in which Zappala allegedly made decisions about bringing charges based on personal or political motivations.
“It’s one of the prosecutor’s greatest powers to decide who to charge with what violations of criminal law and how punitive a sentence to seek,” Civil Rights Corps managing attorney Peter Santina tells Pittsburgh City Paper in a phone interview. “It can’t be the case that someone who’s accused of breaking the law in April [of an election year] is treated differently than someone who’s accused of doing the exact same thing six months later or two years later, just because there’s a change in the prosecutor’s personal or political motivations.”
The complaint argues the incidents in question may violate both the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards for the Prosecution Function.
The first incident cited in the complaint is Zappala’s 2021 instructions not to offer plea deals to clients of a defense attorney who criticized the DA’s office for being “systematically racist.” TribLIVE reported that days after local defense attorney Milton Raiford, who is Black, said in court that he believed Zappala’s office offered worse plea deals to Black defendants because of their race, Zappala sent an email to his staff instructing that “effective immediately, in all matters involving Attorney Milton Raiford, no plea offers are to be made,” with no exceptions.
At the time, the president of the Allegheny County Bar Association called Zappala’s decision “unethical and retaliatory.” More than a dozen local politicians and elected officials joined in the criticism. Some called for Zappala to be removed from office, and others demanded that he apologize, rescind the policy targeting Raiford, and submit to an investigation. Zappala later rescinded the policy, but did not apologize or indicate he would be open to an investigation.
Santina says that, to the best of his knowledge, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania — the entity responsible for investigating allegations of attorney misconduct to which the complaint is addressed — has not investigated this incident.
The complaint also cites media reports from earlier this year stating the day after Zappala lost the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement to challenger Matt Dugan, a deputy district attorney told staff to be cautious in offering plea deals, referencing the upcoming primary election and Zappala’s loss of the endorsement.
Over the next few days, two prosecutors on Zappala’s staff reportedly refused to dismiss weak charges “because of politics,” according to reports from TribLIVE referenced in the complaint. In one of the cases, despite refusing to dismiss the charges, the assistant district attorney reportedly presented no evidence at all of the defendant’s alleged guilt. In both cases, the accused were acquitted at trial.
The complaint suggests this incident may be a violation of at least three Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, including one forbidding prosecutors from “prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.”
The ABA’s Criminal Justice Standards for the Prosecution Function, which the complaint notes have been cited by the state Supreme Court to define the proper role of a prosecutor, are even more specific in their instructions regarding how district attorneys must weigh decisions about bringing charges, Santini says.
The Standards prohibit prosecutors from relying on “improper considerations, such as partisan or political or personal considerations, in exercising prosecutorial discretion.”
The complaint requests an investigation into the “substantial evidence” that Zappala may have violated these rules by basing decisions on whether and how to press charges on personal grudges or the upcoming primary election.
An investigation is necessary to protect the interests of Allegheny County's least powerful residents, Santina says.
“Most people who are charged with crimes or who are investigated by the system, as it currently stands, are people with very little power, very little resources, and often don't have the kinds of connections that more powerful and wealthier people have,” he says. “So, if any political official is making decisions based on their own personal needs, rather than based on their obligations to the public, then they could really hurt the powerless.”
Zappala had not responded to multiple requests for comment by the time of publication.