- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 25, 2017

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A former Pennsylvania state legislator and revenue secretary has been granted a new trial, nearly five years after being convicted of a scheme to use legislative staff to perform campaign work.

A county judge in Harrisburg last week said former Rep. Steve Stetler’s lawyer should not have agreed, with prosecutors, to let the trial judge meet alone with jurors during deliberations. The trial judge also made mistakes when answering jurors’ questions, Dauphin County Judge John Cherry wrote.

Cherry vacated charges of theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest.

Stetler, 67, served more than a year behind bars. The York Democrat served briefly as revenue secretary in then-Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration and was a state representative for 16 years.

Joe Grace, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the decision was under review to determine their next steps.

Cherry said Judge Todd Hoover’s comments to jurors in the case “deviated from the vaguely established limits of discussion addressed with counsel and included error and prejudicial reference to facts.”

During one visit, Hoover answered a juror’s questions about the meaning of the terms “moveable property,” ”intent,” and “compensation.” He also addressed some of the theft charges.

One theft charge, Hoover told jurors, “could be taxpayers’ funds,” while another theft charge concerned “campaigning time, the use of computers and things like that.”

In another visit to the jury room, Hoover told jurors about whether “criminal culpability attaches based upon a person’s mere knowledge of a crime,” Cherry wrote. “Judge Hoover provided hypothetical examples of culpability for conspiracy to commit bank robbery based upon varying levels of a person’s actions and knowledge and correctly stated that mere knowledge of a crime is not criminal conduct.”

Cherry said Hoover’s response was “unclear” on whether someone is criminally liable if they benefit from a crime after someone else has committed it.

“Such discussion of hypothetical facts bore a tenuous relation (to) the case under consideration and must be deemed prejudicial,” Cherry wrote.

The ruling by Cherry was on Stetler’s appeal under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. Stetler lost a previous round of direct appeals.

Stetler’s lawyer, John Uhler, said Stetler had not been aware of the agreement between prosecutors and Stetler’s own lawyer to let Hoover meet with jurors in private.

Cherry’s decision, Uhler said, “was the right result. It was the correct result.”

Uhler declined to comment on what he hoped prosecutors would do in response.

Cherry’s written opinion defended Hoover as “a man of honor and integrity.” Hoover died in August.

Stetler once held a key role in managing political campaigns for the state House Democratic caucus. The charges date to sometime between 2004 and 2006, when Stetler chaired the House Democratic Policy Committee and the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

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