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Defense attorney: Ex - Pa. judge cooperating with investigators in cocaine evidence theft case

The Republic,
BYLINE: JOE MANDAK Associated Press

Washington, PA

Former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky heads into Washington County Court in Washington, Pa. on Thursday, May 23, 2013. Online court records say Pozonsky was arraigned on 15 counts including theft and obstructing the administration of law. Pozonsky was a Washington County Common Pleas judge when he announced in June of 2012 that he would retire the next day, after 15 years on the bench. (AP Photo/Observer Reporter-Katie Toupe)

PITTSBURGH — A western Pennsylvania judge who abruptly resigned last year was charged Thursday with stealing cocaine from evidence in cases before him, and his attorney said the former jurist is cooperating with the investigation.

State police filed the charges against former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky as part of a state grand jury investigation headed by the attorney general's office.

Pozonsky agreed to surrender for arraignment by Washington District Judge Robert Redlinger on 15 counts, including theft and obstructing the administration of law, defense attorney Robert Del Greco Jr. said.

Pozonsky did not comment, but Del Greco told The Associated Press: "We were aware of the investigation and cooperated with it. To his credit, Judge Pozonsky resigned at the outset of the investigation out of respect for the law."

"For him to continue to sit as a judge would probably be disrespectful to the citizens of Washington County as well as disruptive to the bench," Del Greco said, before declining to specifically address the allegations.

The charges based on a state grand jury investigation conducted by the state police Bureau of Criminal Investigation provided a long-delayed explanation for Pozonsky's abrupt and mysterious departure last year.

The 57-year-old Pozonsky was a Common Pleas judge when he announced without explanation June 29 that he would retire the next day after 15 years on the bench. He had served as a magisterial district judge — similar to a justice of the peace in many other states — for 13 years before that.

Pozonsky left the bench a month after Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca reassigned Pozonsky, who handled most of the county's criminal cases, to preside only over civil court cases. Seneca made the move after Pozonsky ordered the destruction of evidence in 16 criminal drug cases.

Pozonsky withdrew that order after county prosecutors pointed out that defendants had due process rights regarding their property, but evidence was already destroyed.

State police investigators, acting on Seneca's orders, examined the evidence in drug cases Pozonsky handled and found "cocaine was either missing or had been tampered with," according to the charges filed Thursday.

The state police investigation determined that in May 2011, Pozonsky began insisting that police bring drug evidence to his courtroom, where the judge or his staff retained the drugs.

It was not immediately clear if investigators believe Pozonsky used the drugs or did something else with them, but a grand jury report detailed the judge's unusual behavior in handling drug evidence.

The grand jury found that Pozonsky would often require police to bring drug evidence with them to pretrial hearings — one officer told the grand jury it was the only time in 14 years he had ever been asked to do that by a judge — and then insist that the drugs be stored in the judge's chambers instead of being returned to a police evidence locker.

In several cases, state police investigators found cocaine was missing after they compared crime lab reports about drugs that had been tested and the amounts later found in evidence envelopes stored in a locked file cabinet in Pozonsky's chambers. In some instances, the cocaine had been replaced by other white powders that didn't contain drugs and, in one instance, police were able to match DNA found on a baggie inside an evidence envelope to Pozonsky.

After his abrupt retirement, Pozonsky announced he was taking a two-week vacation to Alaska, where he has family.

Then, in October, Pozonsky was hired by the Alaska Division of Workers' Compensation as a hearing officer making $79,464, though the Anchorage Daily News raised questions about the legality of his hiring because the job was supposed to be open only to Alaska residents.

After the newspaper ran an editorial questioning the hiring, Pozonsky resigned Dec. 6.

In response to questions, Alaska's Labor Department said state law limits release of public information about specific workers, but it confirmed it was conducting an investigation into Pozonsky's hiring. The status of that investigation could not immediately be determined Thursday as Pozonsky was charged before Alaska offices opened for business.

Pozonsky, who still lives in Anchorage, was allowed to remain free until a preliminary hearing June 13.

Del Greco said the hearing will likely be delayed because he plans to ask that an out-of-county judge be assigned to the case.

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