Somerset DA Thomas, facing sexual assault allegation, has law license suspended

Asia's Tech News Daily

Oct. 28—SOMERSET, Pa. — Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas' law license has been suspended by the state Supreme Court.

The temporary order comes a month after Thomas was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in Windber.

The move does not remove Thomas from his elected office or impact his $185,000 annual pay, but it prevents him from practicing law either as a prosecutor or private attorney while his license is suspended.

The court did not list an end date for the suspension, noting it will remain in effect until further action by the board, the court wrote in a one-page order.

The Supreme Court ruled on the matter Tuesday after its Disciplinary Board's Office of Disciplinary Counsel petitioned the court, seeking the action.

The Disciplinary Board is an independent agency that consists of 13 members — 11 attorneys and two non-lawyers from across the state — who are tasked with reviewing allegations of misconduct to ensure that Pennsylvania attorneys are following the state rules for professional conduct.

Thomas is being represented in the proceedings by Pittsburgh attorney Holly M. Whalen, who is part of a Pittsburgh firm, DiBella, Weinheimer Haber & Coco P.C., that specializes in ethics, licensing and professional conduct cases.

Whalen did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Thomas' criminal defense attorney, Ryan Tutera, declined comment, saying he is not representing Thomas in the disciplinary matter.

Thomas is awaiting trial in Somerset County court, accused of sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, strangulation, simple assault and criminal trespass, along with other charges.

Police allege Thomas assaulted the woman on Sept. 18 inside her Windber home after sending her a Snapchat message and entering the residence despite being told to stay away.

In a criminal complaint, police said the woman knew Thomas professionally, but declined his advances over several years.

Thomas entered the home carrying beer, and after she slapped him and told him to leave, he pushed her onto the couch, pulled down her top and sexually assaulted her, state police said.

The woman was able to flee from Thomas after he allegedly penetrated her several times with his penis, police wrote.

Thomas is fighting the charges in court but has taken a leave of absence from his post while he focuses on the criminal case against him.

A Senate bill that cleared the state House this week could potentially prevent Thomas from stepping back into his role unless the suspension is lifted.

The bill, which requires an active law license to oversee a district attorney's office, is heading back to the Senate for another vote.

The Pennsylvania Senate already passed the bill unanimously in the spring but the state House took up the bill late last month after a second district attorney in two years — the other a former Bradford County prosecutor — was charged with sex crimes.

As drafted, the district attorney's office would be deemed vacant if an incumbent prosecutor is disbarred.

If the license is suspended by the Supreme Court, that prosecutor would be suspended from overseeing the office until that license is restored or the term they are serving expires.

By law in Pennsylvania, an attorney must have a law license to practice — regardless of whether someone tries to continue handling other duties as a district attorney.

The bill was first drafted after now-former Bradford County District Attorney Chad Salsman vowed to stay in office while his own case was pending, alleging he coerced clients to have sexual relationships with him while he was a private attorney.

Salsman ended up pleading guilty to charges including witness intimidation and is serving 18 months to five years in jail for the crimes.

The bill being considered also clarifies how the DA's office can continue to operate during a vacancy such as a suspension, with the first assistant able to serve as an interim district attorney during the period.

Thomas has already turned over office oversight to his first assistant, Molly Metzgar, while he focuses on the charges against him in court.

The Senate's expected passage would send the bill to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk to be signed into law.

Local lawmakers — including state Sens. Wayne Langerholc Jr. and Patrick Stefano, and state Reps. Frank Burns, Jim Rigby and Thomas Sankey — have supported the bill.

State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar did not vote on the bill.

Metzgar said he supports the bill, but due to the fact his wife is now serving as acting DA, state House rules prohibit him from casting a vote, given that the legislation could impact her office.

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