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DA election results: State College attorney defeats Parks Miller convincingly

by on May 18, 2017 9:21 AM

Ever since local attorney Bernie Cantorna announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for Centre County district attorney, his message has been the same — changes need to be made in the office of the county’s top prosecutor.

Late on Election Night, May 16, Cantorna reasserted those words after overwhelmingly defeating incumbent Stacy Parks Miller to gain the Democratic nod for ballot placement in the November general election.

“I have a lot of work to do,” Cantorna told the Gazette at about 11:30 p.m. “The numbers aren’t all in yet, but by the looks of things, all our hard work has paid off. The people believe the district attorney’s office lacks integrity, and I said since Day 1, that’s what I will bring. Things have to change.”

No candidate ran on the Republican side. Write-in votes were not yet tallied by Gazette press time May 17. Parks Miller would need to be the leading write-in vote-getter and have at least 250 write-in votes to win the Republican nomination.

With all precincts reporting, Cantorna won in convincing fashion with a margin of 69.42 percent (7,156 votes) to Parks Miller’s 30.41 percent (3,135).

Cantorna won all but four of the county’s 91 precincts. Parks Miller won three in Rush Township and one in Curtin Township.

SURPRISED BY THE NUMBERS

“I was surprised by the numbers a bit,” said Cantorna. “But, I had a lot of wonderful people supporting me, and a lot of people understood my thoughts about how to run the district attorney’s office. I’m very humbled to see the big margin and have to thank all my supporters for that. I owe a lot a people a big thank you.”

A trial attorney for 27 years who started his career as a public defender, Cantorna is partner in the Centre County firm Bryant & Cantorna.

Cantorna is senior staff member at the Trial Lawyer’s College for which he organizes and teaches graduate-level law courses to other attorneys. He was previously a clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School — where he received his law degree — for five years and was a Wisconsin public defender for three years. He is also head coach of the State College Area High School girls’ rugby team and an assistant coach for the Penn State women’s rugby team.

He had the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, among others.

“Right now, I going to finish out celebrating and get back to work tomorrow,” Cantorna said from Election Night campaign headquarters at Olde New York restaurant. “I don’t want to say too much until the numbers are official, but I do want to again say how thankful I am of my supporters.”

Parks Miller, who was seeking a third term, could not be reached for comment. She has successfully prosecuted high-profile cases during her tenure, but controversy has followed her in recent years. Some of that is intertwined with the contentious history between her and Cantorna, an animosity that was evident at times throughout the campaign.

CONTENTIOUS CAMPAIGN

Cantorna’s announcement that he would seek the nomination immediately set off a scathing response from Parks Miller and a volley of statements.

The bad blood started with the 2014 trial of Jalene McClure, a day care provider convicted of assaulting a 5-month-old child. Her sentence was overturned and a new trial ordered by a state Superior Court panel in August on grounds that certain evidence, testimony and a redacted statement should not have been admitted.

Cantorna, who represented McClure, had argued that now-retired Judge Bradley Lunsford should have recused himself from the trial, after a Right-to-Know request revealed hundreds of text messages between Lunsford and members of Parks Miller’s office in the months leading up to McClure’s trial. Cantorna also argued on appeal that a former court reporter’s affidavit stating Lunsford and Parks Miller had texted during a 2012 trial demonstrated an inappropriate relationship. The Superior Court did not rule on that issue.

In 2015, Cantorna brought to the Centre County Board of Commissioners an accusation from former DA’s office paralegal Michelle Shutt that Parks Miller had forged the signature of Judge Pamela Ruest on a fake bail order as part of a jailhouse sting operation.

That set off a series of battles between Parks Miller and county officials and defense attorneys. The case was investigated by the Pennsylvania office of the attorney general and a grand jury ultimately found no wrongdoing by Parks Miller, concluding the signature belonged to Ruest. Parks Miller filed a lawsuit in federal court against a number of county officials, Ruest, Shutt and several defense attorneys, including Cantorna, charging defamation, malicious prosecution, legal malpractice and other claims.

A judge dismissed most of the claims, including those against Cantorna, last May, and the remaining claims of illegal search and seizure by county officials were dismissed in August. Parks Miller, who was elected DA in 2009 and re-elected in 2013, has appealed the dismissal.

Shutt filed suit against Parks Miller for retaliation, defamation and other claims. That was dismissed by a federal judge, but Shutt has the opportunity to refile in county court.

In interviews and a debate during the campaign, Cantorna cited what he described as unusually high turnover in the DA’s office during Parks Miller’s tenure. Parks Miller, however, noted that she got rid of much of the existing staff when she first took office. She also said that her assistant DAs are trained well and leave for higher paying positions.

StateCollege.com managing editor Geoff Rushton and Gazette managing editor G. Kerry Webster contributed to this story.

 

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