Pier Hess Graf didn’t expect to be thrust into the news quite so quickly.
Lebanon County’s new district attorney was sworn into office on Friday, Jan. 31. The following day, she issued a statement on a case that has drawn national attention, including coverage by the New York Times.
The story centers on Ashley Menser of Annville, who had been convicted of her ninth shoplifting offense — her sixth felony conviction — since 2007. Menser argued in court that she should not be jailed because she is being treated for cancer; Lebanon County Judge Samuel A. Kline instead sentenced her to state prison for a minimum of 10 months and a maximum of seven years, although he made her eligible for parole in a little more than seven months through a program for nonviolent offenders.
The story caught the eye of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who on Jan. 31 asked Kline to reconsider the sentence and offered to pay back the $109 she’d stolen.
It’s unclear if Fetterman was aware of Menser’s previous convictions.
In any case, Graf felt compelled to write a response.
Fetterman, Graf said in a statement, “found it appropriate to criticize the Court and the victim” but “failed to mention in any of his tweets, however, the extensive prior record of the defendant, her drug abuse, or the fact that her sentencing ranges — as set forth by the legislature — call for jail time.”
“We do not often respond to media articles or comments criticizing a defendant’s sentence,” Graf concluded. “I felt it necessary to respond, given the lack of accurate factual information which seem to permeate the majority of comments, articles, or ‘tweets’ about Ms. Menser and her case.”
It was a big first day on the job for Graf, who has been a Lebanon County prosecutor for 10 years and had been lead prosecutor for the county for less than 24 hours.
People often complain that convicted criminals get too much or not enough time, she said. Not everyone realizes, she said, that the courts work within a sentencing framework devised by the state Legislature.
Recommending an appropriate sentence for someone who’s been convicted in court is a big part of the job, she said.
“People say we’re not compassionate. That’s simply not true,” Graf said, noting that, when possible, they explore options for treatment and probation rather than incarceration.
No immediate changes
Graf, who received a bachelor’s degree from Temple University and graduated cum laude from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, said she took an admit liking to the courtroom and the adversarial nature of being a trial lawyer.
“You have to be quick, to think on your feet,” she said. “I knew when I graduated from law school that, ultimately, I wanted to be a trial lawyer.”
She was hired by District Attorney David Arnold in 2009 to join his team of prosecutors.
“There was such an energy to it, an excitement to it,” she recalled. “You help people. You have a case that comes before you and you know you’re going to help someone today.
“I really have enjoyed fighting for people, and fighting to keep our community safe.”
But, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, Graf replaced Arnold as district attorney earlier this year after Arnold won a special Jan. 14 election to fill a vacancy in the state Senate.
“I wouldn’t say this was a long, well thought-out plan,” Graf said with a laugh. “Dave running for the Senate meant there would be an opening. And it’s a job I’ve been passionate about.
“But it’s not like I was gunning for the man’s seat.”
Graf said she isn’t planning any immediate changes in the office.
“Dave was a phenomenal mentor,” she said. “And Dave and I are very similar in a lot of ways, that’s why we’ve worked together so well for 10 years.”
Still, Graf said she brings new “nuances” to the position, she said. For instance, she said, she is very active in various events supporting local police, which she intends to continue.
Her husband, Chris Graf, is a 13-year veteran of law enforcement. In 2014, she organized the first Back the Blue Event, which has become an annual fundraiser supporting Pa.C.O.P.S., a charitable group that provides support to officers shot or killed in the line of duty and their families.
“It’s important as a community that we show police that they are important to us, that we appreciate what they do,” she said.
“I also want to be an advocate for victims … and to be sure we continue to do the right things in this office for the right reasons.”
She wants the DA’s office to be more accessible to the community, she said, and she hopes to initiate more community outreach programs to local schools and organizations. People should be aware, she said, of the resources the DA’s office has to offer.
“You may have people who, unfortunately, were raised not to like police, not to trust police,” Graf said. “They may have been raised not to want to speak to people in authority. We have to be sure to treat them like a human being, show them we actually do care.
“Everyone needs to feel safe. Everyone needs to feel protected.”
Although her new job comes with expanded administrative duties, Graf said she will still argue cases in court.
“My strength is in court, fighting for the victims,” she said. “That’s where my public service as a lawyer comes into play.”
“I am very grateful for this opportunity,” she added. “It is an honor to me to serve as district attorney after the career that I’ve had.”
The county DA’s office annually prosecutors more than 2,000 adult and 400 juvenile criminal cases and administers 15 criminal justice programs covering specialized prosecutions, diversionary programs, specialized investigations and victim assistance. The office employs more than 30 people.
Over the years, Graf said, “our caseload has grown exponentially. But in that time, we’ve added only one more prosecutor.”
If she could make one change to the local courts, she said, she’d like to see the formation of a court focusing solely on cases of drug use, theft to support drug habits, and drug-related violence.
“That’s really the biggest need that we have,” she said. “A lot of our cases are drug-related. … I think you’d be hard pressed to find a family that has not been touched by opioid addiction or some kind of drug addiction.”
Lebanon County has already established a DUI treatment court and veterans court. A drug court, Graf said, would direct repeat offenders into programs designed to help them deal with drug-related problems.
“We haven’t fleshed out what we need or from whom,” she said. “But it’s a project of mine coming into the office that I am excited about.”
A firm closing
Graf, 36, is a lifelong Lebanon County resident. Before ascending to the DA’s seat, she served as a Senior Deputy District Attorney and was responsible for prosecuting violent crimes such as murders, robberies and sexual assaults. Since 2009 she has conducted more than 100 trials.
She also opened the Hess Law Firm P.C. in 2014, helping clients with business contracts, custody and child support, divorce, wills and estates, and contracts.
However, state law prohibits a district attorney from owning or operating a private firm, so she had to close up shop before her swearing in.
She will miss the firm and her clients there, she said.
“I built that on my own sweat, my own tears. I worked hard to build a successful law practice, and that’s hard to let go of,” she said.
“I’m not always the best at setting boundaries,” she added, noting that a lot of her clients “have become friends.”
Besides becoming the county DA, Graf was appointed to the executive committee of the Lebanon County Republican Committee.
“That’s something new for me,” she said. “I’ve not been terribly active with the Republican Committee over the years.”
Committee chairman Casey Long has praised Graf, a lifelong Republican, for bringing new ideas to the party.
Graf said she is a “conservative Republican voice” for the county with “a fresh take, a fresh perspective” on the issues.
“I’m not entrenched with any one ideology … so it’s fair to say I’m willing to work with everyone,” she said. “You have to be willing to talk and compromise with people. To make the best decisions for everyone.”
But Graf hasn’t stepped into her new roles entirely without acrimony.
Commissioner Bill Ames said in a statement that his removal from the executive committee to make way for Graf is the work of “a vindictive chairman who tolerates no dissent in the party.”
Ames said in the statement that he is “sure Pier will serve to the best of her ability.”
However, Ames said Long ousted him from the seat because of a grudge over party in-fighting leading up to the 2019 primary election and “my long-standing resistance to Casey’s thuggish approach to running the party.”
Ames, who continues to serve as a committeeman from South Londonderry Township, said he encourages party members to run for committee seats this coming spring in order to lessen Long’s grip on the party.
Long could not be reached for comment.
Graf said she hasn’t participated in the feud between Long and Ames, and said she has “great respect” for the work Ames has done.
She wants the Republican Committee to be united in a common cause.
“I hope people are ready to move forward and look ahead,” Graf said. “What I’ve seen in the party over the past few years is, there’s been a divisive element to it that I’m hoping people can move past.”
An informed democracy is a healthy democracy.
An independent press makes democracy work better. Join LebTown as a member to help us make a difference. Benefits include member happy hours, an email preview of what we plan to publish each week, and access to our Friends of the Newsroom group on Facebook.
Learn more and join now here.
Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Dave Arnold and Bill Ames (as well as their opponents) have been advertisers on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.