Luzerne County Controller Walter Griffith’s pending felony wiretap charge didn’t stop Republicans from choosing him as their nominee for another term, according to unofficial election results.
Democrats picked Conyngham Township resident Michelle Bednar over Stephen A. Urban, a county councilman and former 12-year county commissioner who had the advantage of widespread name recognition, unofficial results show.
Griffith, who monitored the results from his Kingston Township home, said the outcome makes him believe people valued his watchdog style.
“Obviously, they appreciate what I’ve done for them,” said Griffith. “I am grateful for that.”
He did not know if the charges would turn away supporters.
“In light of what just happened, the people put their faith in me, and I appreciate that,” Griffith said, adding that he will continue to “put the financial state of Luzerne County above all else.”
Griffith, 58, received 5,843 votes, compared to 4,378 for his Republican opponent, Wilkes-Barre tax accountant Karen Ceppa-Hirko.
On the Democratic side, the votes were 12,093 for Bednar and 8,357 for Urban.
Bednar, a private-sector corporate trust supervisor and township tax collector since 2009, said she believes voters are ready for change.
“I’m grateful and humbled by the confidence and support of the voters,” said Bednar, 47, who celebrated at Happy Pizza in Plymouth. “I’m looking forward to getting back out on the campaign trail for November.”
Hungry for the controller seat, Urban had loaned $6,000 of his own money to his campaign on May 7, largely to fund radio advertisements emphasizing his military experience and willingness to speak out against wrongdoing as a county official.
County Council seats pay $8,000 annually, compared to $64,999 for the controller elected in November.
Urban also hit the air waves and print media, blasting Griffith on his arrest, even though the two weren’t competing against each other in the primary.
Urban, who attended Tuesday night’s council meeting but didn’t stick around the courthouse rotunda to monitor results, said he ran because he is qualified and believes voters should have options.
Bednar’s campaign was bolstered by $9,412 in contributions, including $5,000 from the IBEW PAC Voluntary Fund in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of dollars from several union-related political action committees.
She also was expected to receive support from fellow municipal tax collectors believed to have a strong political base of most-likely voters — an advantage in municipal primaries with historically low voter turnout. Urban had hoped for votes from tax collectors and unsuccessfully opposed the county’s switch from elected collectors to in-house collection of county taxes earlier this year.
Ceppa-Hirko’s loss wasn’t a surprise to many political observers, who say her campaign was too subdued to overcome the outspoken incumbent.
Ceppa-Hirko said before the election that she believed many Griffith supporters would stand by him because he hasn’t been convicted or pleaded guilty.
Charges against Griffith
Griffith is accused of making three recordings without the knowledge or consent of the parties involved. He faces up to 21 years in prison because each wiretap violation carries a maximum sentence of seven years.
Griffith pointed to the timing of the charges days before the primary.
The county’s home rule charter says county elected officials must forfeit their office if they are convicted or plead no contest to any felony. It’s unlikely the charges against Griffith will be resolved in court before November unless he pleads guilty as part of a settlement agreement.
The county Republican Party would choose someone else to run in the November general if Griffith withdraws from the race before the general because of a guilty plea. Griffith showed no indication of withdrawing, saying he looks forward to November.
After Griffith’s arrest, Bednar issued a statement describing the charges as “another black eye in a long line of disservice to our residents.”