Fact-check contest: the rest of the Rega story

Dec. 31, 2014, front page, The Indiana Gazette.

A Review

By David Loomis

INDIANA — We have a winner In The HawkEye’s first fact-check news quiz!

“Just wow,” read the winning entry. “Hard to believe the writer overlooked Judge Rega’s brief banishment from the bench.”

Indeed, the quiz winner (who requested anonymity) promptly and correctly identified a 2014 incident involving Indiana County magistrate Jennifer J. Rega that went curiously missing from the Jan. 25 front-page news item announcing her intention to seek a fourth six-year term on both Democratic and Republican tickets on Nov. 5.

Not only did the winner correctly identify the missing link in the public record, the winner also identified the broader issue – the lacunae (sorry; it’s the right word) around the county courthouse.


 

A REVIEW OF THE FACTS surrounding the Rega case is warranted. They were widely published in 2014. For example, the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported the events of Sept. 13, 2014, around midnight, on rural State Route 286 in Cherryhill.

Rega drove away from the scene of a collision with another vehicle, police and witnesses said. This is commonly called hit-and-run. Her GMC sport utility vehicle crossed the center line and struck the side mirror on a 2005 Chevrolet SUV driven by a Homer City woman, with two 17-year-old passengers. Rega drove off.

The Homer City woman turned and pursued the GMC. Both drivers stopped a few miles from the crash scene. Rega appeared disoriented, smelled of alcohol, slurred her speech and seemed drunk, witnesses told police, according to the Associated Press and other news accounts. When the Homer City woman told Rega she was going to call the cops, Rega took off again. The Homer City woman wrote down the license-plate number. Investigators traced it to Rega’s home outside Blairsville, where they found damage matching the accident.

Four days later, on Sept. 17, Indiana County presiding Judge William Martin announced that Rega would be put on leave from the bench with full pay during the criminal investigation. After the investigation, Rega was charged with hit-and-run and obstruction of justice, among others.

Unfair, her lawyer said.

“She’s a judge, and she’s being treated differently,” Indiana attorney Robert S. Muir said in October. “They’ve tacked on and piled on charges in this matter.”

On Nov. 19, Deputy Attorney General William Caye II, brought in to avoid conflict-of-interest appearances, made a motion to admit Rega into the state’s accelerated rehabilitative disposition program. Martin ordered Rega to appear “for a hearing before the court” on the motion.

On Dec. 1, Rega appeared. She was admitted to the ARD program as a first-time nonviolent offender. The deal was not an admission of guilt. She was allowed to return to the bench on Jan. 5, 2015, but she was barred from hearing criminal cases pending successful completion of her ARD.

Successful completion also allowed expungement of her record. Indeed, the state’s judicial-records website now makes no mention of her case, either in Indiana County, where her hit-and-run occurred, or in Westmoreland County, where her ARD was supervised.

Expungement may be a good program, especially for college students who exhibit youthful indiscretions and hope to find employment after graduation. Former Indiana borough police Chief William C. Sutton, recently retired from a long career in law enforcement here and elsewhere, said he hardly ever handled expungement applications until he arrived in Indiana, home to a sizable state university. Here, he said, he processed stacks of them, mostly for college kids.

But Rega, 41 at the time of her 2014 incident, was no college kid. Moreover, the Orwellian downside of expungement – wiping of the official record – is highlighted in her case. If not for attentive and timely press coverage, the judge’s case might have vanished from the public record.

 

THE LACUNA EXTENDS beyond that.

Rega’s ARD hearing? It was held behind closed doors. As the Tribune-Review reported at the time, the closure appeared to violate the spirit and the letter of state law. The story reported reactions from an attorney for the state bar association and from attorneys statewide. They said Indiana County’s closed-door hearing practice violates state code and First Amendment guarantees upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Magistrate Jennifer J. Rega, outside Indiana County Courthouse, Nov. 26, 2014. Photo from WTAE-TV website.

The closed hearing for Rega was not an isolated case. Indiana County’s courthouse administration had closed ARD hearings since at least 1999 – again, contrary to state code and constitutional law, the Tribune-Review reported.

When Trib reporters questioned Indiana County courthouse officials in December 2014, the officials could not find a copy of their rules for ARD hearings. In a news release, presiding Judge Martin promised a review of the court’s policies on closed-door hearings.

One Jan. 29, 2019, a phone message was left with an assistant at Martin’s courthouse office asking for the review he promised in 2014. Neither the assistant nor the judge responded.

 

AN EPILOG to the Rega case was a Feb. 10, 2015, letter of reprimand to Rega following a review by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board:

“The Board was most troubled by its conclusion that you left the scene of the accident and did not immediately report it, in part, to avoid being cited for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) because you had consumed a quantity of alcohol prior to the accident,” the letter read.

The board concluded that Rega failed to avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety that brought her judicial office into “disrepute.” But the board decided against disciplining her because she was contrite and was addressing criminal charges (the obstruction charge carried a maximum two-year prison sentence had she been tried and been convicted) by attending ARD.

The Associated Press reported the board’s story on March 11, 2015.

 

VOTERS NOTICE THE LACUNAE. For example, one newspaper reader appended a comment to the Jan. 25, 2019, front-page Rega reelection announcement item.  It read:

“This is NOT to say that this woman is not a good judge or should or should not be retained,” wrote reader Will Latinette.

He proceeded to describe the results of an “advanced search” of the newspaper’s online archive. The only item found was a front-page, end-of-year, “Top Stories of 2014” feature reporting readers rating Rega’s hit-and-run as “the most significant story of the year.”

“As the ‘most significant story of the year’ I would think it 1) would be cited as a related story and 2) would be more available to subscribers wanting to research the candidate’s history,” Latinette wrote.

__________

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu

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