District Justice Rita Arnold acknowledges improprieties — an admission that could affect a couple’s election-forgery case
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
A Chester County magisterial district judge accused of abusing her power to benefit her son appears interested in avoiding a trial, according to court documents.
In a “proposed stipulation” filed with the Court of Judicial Discipline last month, Magisterial District Judge Rita Arnold acknowledged improper handling of a January 2010 assault citation against her son, Forrest C. Solomon Jr., 34, who has a 12-year history of convictions ranging from indecent assault to drug offenses.
In February, the state Judicial Conduct Board filed a formal complaint against Arnold, a 17-year jurist whose district serves the townships of Birmingham, East Caln, East and West Bradford, and the Borough of Downingtown. She was immediately escorted from her office, stripped of her keys, and ordered to avoid any contact with employees by Chester County President Judge James P. MacElree II. However, those actions represented the extent of his authority.
Under state law, the Court of Judicial Discipline could suspend Arnold’s pay, which it has not done. In the meantime, Senior Magisterial District Judge Stanley is being paid a daily rate to perform her duties.
Arnold’s attorney, Heidi F. Eakin, did not return telephone calls for comment.
The Judicial Conduct Board’s complaint focused on a case involving an altercation on Jan. 19, 2010, between Solomon and his half-brother Jonathan Arnold, 29, both of whom lived with Rita Arnold.
The complaint said a citation for assault was issued by a state trooper against Solomon but was not recorded for nearly three months. As a result, Solomon’s probation officer could not take any action against him on the new charge because he did not know about it, the complaint said.
Arnold’s office manager testified that the judge told her to “hold onto” the citation until instructed otherwise, to avoid adversely affecting “Solomon’s probationary status.” When troopers questioned Arnold about the fact that the citation had not been docketed, Arnold said “her court was really backlogged,” the complaint said.
Once the citation was docketed on April 5, 2010, Arnold violated procedure again by transferring the case to District Judge Mark Bruno in West Chester without the requisite transfer order from MacElree, the complaint said.
According to court records, if the case proceeds to trial, the prosecution’s witnesses would include MacElree; State Police Lt. Brandon Daniels; State Trooper Lauren Long; Patricia Davis, Arnold’s office manager; Joseph Zangrilli, Solomon’s probation officer, and Patricia Norwood-Foden, the district court administrator. They would testify about the ways in which Arnold allegedly deviated from court procedure and the conversations they had with her about those actions, court records said.
For example, when Arnold was questioned by Norwood-Foden about her failure to file a citation against her son in a timely manner, she responded that “she misplaced and completely forgot about the citation during the move of her court offices” in January and February 2010, court documents said.
During an interview with the Board of Judicial Conduct, Arnold “acknowledged under oath that she did not forget completely” about the citation because she received a phone call from Daniels, who inquired about its status. She said “she searched for the citation until April 5, 2010, when she found it in a box and docketed it,” court records said.
In the stipulation, Arnold admitted “the delay in docketing the citation and her transfer of it” to another court “each was improper, of itself.” Additionally, she stated that “she does not have any evidence or testimony to refute” the prosecution’s account.
If the Court of Judicial Discipline accepts Arnold’s proposed stipulations, a trial would likely be averted, and the court would hear argument on sanctions, which could range from a reprimand to removal from office.
The documents said Eakin plans to present six character witnesses in Arnold’s defense, including attorneys Paul J. Rubino and Alan Novak, Downingtown Police Chief James McGowan, and West Chester Police Lt. James Morris.
While the case against Arnold is proceeding in Harrisburg, another prosecution linked to her is unfolding in Chester County Court.
On May 23, Judge William P. Mahon heard argument about the conspiracy and forgery charges filed in August against Donald Skomsky, 58, and his wife, Valerie Palfy, 47, both of West Chester. The couple is accused of sending an anonymous mass mailing that was highly critical of Arnold before the 2011 spring primary election.
The letters said Arnold, who was being challenged by Skomsky in the primary, was under scrutiny from the Judicial Conduct Board for inappropriate action in a case involving Solomon — more than nine months before the formal complaint was filed against her.
The forgery charge stemmed from the mailings’ return address, which listed a fictitious organization followed by the return address of either the Republican or Democratic headquarters, depending on the recipient’s party affiliation.
Assistant District Attorney Max O’Keefe had filed a motion to keep information about Arnold’s prosecution out of the case, arguing that it has no relevance to the forgery. “The truth of the letter is immaterial,” said O’Keefe.
Defense attorney Joseph Silvestro strongly disagreed, adding that he was having difficulty determining whom the commonwealth viewed as the victim, a sentiment ultimately shared by the judge.
Calling the motion “not well-founded,” Mahon said O’Keefe needed to identify who was injured or defrauded by the mailing – Arnold, the political parties, or citizens. O’Keefe said there could be multiple victims. He said both parties were victims because they complained that citizens thought the mailing had been sanctioned by party officials. Silvestro countered that a letter written by the county’s Republican Party chairman indicated that voters were the victims.
The contents of the letter would be important if voters were deemed to be the injured party, Silvestro suggested.
“You’ve got to clear that up,” Mahon told O’Keefe, telling him to submit a “bill of particulars, ” detailing the specifics of the prosecution, including which section of the forgery statute he will pursue.
Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said that he expected the requested document to be filed with the court next week.
The trial is scheduled to begin June 25.