PLYMOUTH – A benefit for embattled Plymouth councilman Bill Dixon became a celebration Saturday after Dixon's lawyer announced the Luzerne County district attorney will not pursue his ouster.
The outpouring of support that has come from Plymouth and from Bill's friends within the community and outside of Plymouth was so overwhelming that (the district attorney) couldn't not hear it, Dixon's attorney, Jim Haggerty, told a packed house of Dixon supporters at the Plymouth American Legion Saturday. The result that we have today… is a direct result of everything that you've done on Bill's behalf.
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis was asked to investigate whether criminal convictions from the 1970s could bar Dixon from serving on the Plymouth Borough Council, first by council members and later by attorney Charles Coslett of Kingston, whom a four-member majority of council voted in November to hire as special legal counsel to determine Dixon's eligibility.
Dixon was arrested in 1971, shortly after returning from military service in the Vietnam War, on a drug charge and in 1975 on a burglary charge. He served time at SCI Dallas. Gov. Tom Corbett recently pardoned Dixon for state convictions stemming from those crimes, but a federal conviction for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine remains.
Pennsylvania's constitution bars those convicted of embezzlement of public funds, bribery, perjury or other infamous crimes from holding public office, though typically only the county district attorney or the state attorney general can seek an elected official's removal for the infamous crime clause.
Salavantis wrote in a letter to Haggerty dated Dec. 5 that it would be imprudent for her office to pursue Dixon's removal, and that the Federal charge against Mr. Dixon from nearly forty (40) years ago does not constitute an infamous crime as defined by our Supreme Court.
We presume the voters make a knowing and informed choice in choosing their representative, Salavantis wrote, and therefore, it is not the intent of this office to be used as a political pawn by those unhappy with the candidate's victory, nor to supersede the voters' choice…
Haggerty said further challenges to Dixon holding office are extremely unlikely because Salavantis declined to press the issue and the state Attorney General's Office has a policy of non-involvement in local political posts. Whether a borough resident could challenge Dixon's election is a legal question, he added.
I don't think it will happen because somebody will have to reach in their pocket and pay a lawyer, Haggerty said.
Haggerty said he will continue working to have Dixon's state record expunged based on the governor's pardon, and that he will pursue a presidential pardon for the federal charge.
Dixon was moved to tears as he thanked supporters and his wife of 34 years, Janet, during his benefit Saturday.
There's this perception about Plymouth because of all the recent crime that our town is not safe, Dixon said. But we've got real good people. I hope that someday all this press and everything in the news would end so we could get back to being how we are now.
It's just so wonderful he and us as a family can move on, Janet Dixon said. There's nothing else anybody can do to prevent him from being on council and helping out the community.
More than 100 supporters purchased advance tickets, dined on food prepared by volunteers and purchased raffle chances on donated prizes Saturday, all to help Dixon pay for his legal defense in the matter. Plymouth residents Cherie Stone, Trinace Cousins and Scott Cannon organized the benefit through a support Bill Dixon Facebook page that has nearly 350 members.
The man would do anything for anybody; he would give you the shirt off his back, said Cousins, who coaches youth football with Dixon. So we just thought that we should do for him what he's done for all of us.
Dixon and some supporters alleged he was targeted by a political machine of long-time council members, who pressed for his ouster in the face of strong public support. Dixon was the leading vote-getter in the 2011 Plymouth Council race, and more than 100 supporters attended a November meeting to oppose council hiring Coslett to investigate his past.
The problem with this law is that it was first drafted in the 1800s, when there was no such thing as drug charges, Dixon said. But they throw that in under ‘other infamous crimes.' They play with that. When you have a party that dominates any form of government… they can (make) charges like that; that's what a machine is.
Of course he's being attacked, said Clif Madrack, another Plymouth council member who was elected with Dixon in November 2011. He's being attacked by the political machine because he beat them in the last election.
Coslett said he believes the district attorney erred in determining whether Dixon is legally able to serve, and accused Salavantis of catering to what she views as the public sentiment.
If the electorate should always have the say then I guess we don't need laws, Coslett said. We should just leave everything up to the electorate.
He also chided the DA for failing to address the issue when council raised it prior to retaining him as legal counsel. He said council sent letters requesting an investigation to the DA in February and May that received no response, and said Salavantis did not respond directly to the two letters he sent on the borough's behalf.
At least she's finally made a decision, Coslett said. I had to rattle her cage. The earlier attempts by Plymouth officials fell on deaf ears.
Coslett would not comment on whether council will press the issue further.
Ronald Kobusky, one of the council members who voted to hire Coslett, said council's decision was not politically or racially motivated.
I like Bill; I voted for Bill, Kobusky said. My whole intent here was just to make sure it was legal… I just want to make sure down the road Plymouth Borough doesn't have an issue.
Specifically, Kobusky said he wanted to ensure action taken by council would not be overturned in the future because Dixon's vote was invalid.
You take an oath of office to uphold the constitution of the state of Pennsylvania, Kobusky said. And we felt if we didn't bring this to light to get answers to the questions that need to be answered, we're not upholding our oath.
Council member Al Petcavage deferred comment to Coslett.
Council members Tom McTague and Stanley Scibek, who also voted to hire Coslett, could not be reached for comment Saturday.