The husband of Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf is a former supervisor of a state trooper her office is currently investigating for potential criminal charges surrounding a fatal shooting last fall, according to a recent news report from The New York Times.
The NYT reported in late May that Graf’s husband, Cpl. Christopher Graf, was the supervisor of trooper Jay Splain, who has killed four people in the past 15 years, including two in Lebanon County since 2020. Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Splain shot and killed both Charity Thome and Andy Dzwonchyk in March 2020 and November 2021, respectively, in rural areas of Lebanon County.
The NYT reported that Christopher Graf was Splain’s supervisor at the time the trooper shot and killed Thome. Splain has been cleared in the first three shootings – including the incident involving an unarmed Thome after the county DA’s office declined to charge him one month later. The first two deadly shootings involving Splain occurred in rural areas of eastern Pennsylvania.
Two days prior to the article being published, Hess Graf’s office issued a 2-1/2 page statement to the press in response to questions posed to her by the NYT the prior day. She concludes her statement, which she calls “a formal response to the New York Times inquiry,” by writing: “Should any questions arise as a result of the above, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.”
Since then, Hess Graf has refused multiple LebTown requests for an in-person or telephone interview.
In the NYT article, a law professor and ethics expert said Hess Graf should have declined to investigate shootings involving Jonestown-based troopers. The NYT report also notes that Hess Graf did not publicly disclose that her husband was Splain’s boss at the time Thome was killed.
“The public can’t be expected to trust the impartiality of her decision regarding a trooper that her husband supervised,” said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor and expert on legal ethics, to the NYT.
In her statement, Hess Graf wrote that she identified during her transition period from senior deputy attorney to district attorney that a potential conflict of interest could arise involving her husband, who was an officer at the Jonestown barracks when she became the DA in January 2020 until he “transitioned employment” in the summer of 2021.
Hess Graf said she and her first assistant, Nichole Eisenhart, researched “relevant case law”‘ relating to conflicts of interest, then met with Lebanon County President Judge John Tylwalk. She said they “collectively determined a policy which governs when my office possesses a conflict due to my husband’s career.” See the conflict policy here (PDF).
Hess Graf’s release does not specify what specific relevant case law was used in creating the policy, when the meeting occurred or when the policy “memorialized in writing and circulated to President Judge John C. Tylwalk” was finalized.
In a telephone interview with LebTown, Judge Tylwalk said he had a meeting with Hess Graf on Jan. 17, 2020, that involved some general discussion concerning any potential conflicts of interest that may involve her husband since he was “a patrol supervisor” for the Pennsylvania State Police. That meeting occurred about two weeks prior to her officially becoming district attorney.
“We did have a meeting to discuss whether or not there should be some policy and my recollection, I guess my notes of that conversation indicate that I told her that I believe that if there was a use-of-force situation or if her husband was involved, even tangentially, the better move would be to bring in the attorney general’s office,” said Tylwalk. “And then the next thing I heard, I received a copy of the memorandum where they had consulted with the attorney general’s office and developed the policy that was developed. I wasn’t involved in actually developing the specifics of it or anything.”
Tylwalk added that while it is not the role of the courts to determine conflict of interest policies or if a conflict of interest had occurred, he was asked and told Hess Graf that he believed it was a good idea to have one.
“It’s not our job to determine if the district attorney’s office would have a conflict of interest in any given case unless that issue is somehow presented to us,” said Tylwalk. “I’ve never been asked to weigh in on whether or not they had a conflict of interest and should not be involved in a case — like in any of these officer-involved shooting cases. I’ve never been asked my opinion on those nor would I expect to be asked either.”
Molly Stieber, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, told LebTown in a statement that their office did not assist Hess Graf in creating a conflict of interest policy for Lebanon County’s district attorney’s office.
“Generally speaking, District Attorney’s offices regularly contact the Office of Attorney General’s criminal division to discuss potential conflicts or seek advice since our office serves as the agency to which cases involving conflicts or resource needs are referred,” Stieber wrote. “While we can provide advice on potential conflicts or the appearance of one, District Attorneys are under no obligation to follow that advice and we do not review any internal policies for counties as to what constitutes a conflict. We did not review the language in Lebanon County’s policy.”
In noting in her press release that there was no conflict involving the Thome shooting, Hess Graf also wrote that her husband was not on duty and had no involvement in the matter. “He had no factual information as to the shooting, the circumstances which led to the shooting, or the investigation which immediately started thereafter. As such, per the policy, no conflict existed and my Office investigated the incident.”
The Times reports that Gillers believes “her conflict policy was too narrow, in part because it is impossible to know at the outset of such a case what part a supervisor might have played.”
“The investigation could lead to negligence on the part of her husband, or to a failure to supervise, and for that reason alone she should not do it,” he was quoted as saying in the Times.
Gillers isn’t the only one questioning whether the DA should recuse herself from investigations involving her husband’s employer.
The Lebanon County branch of the NAACP announced on Feb. 4 that it has filed an ethics complaint against Pier with a state disciplinary board over her investigation of two fatal shootings by Pennsylvania State Police troopers. That investigation is still ongoing.
Although she cleared Splain and a second trooper of any wrongdoing in the Thome shooting in approximately five weeks, her office has not announced any conclusions in the Dzwonchyk investigation, which will hit the 7-month mark on June 9.
In an email to LebTown, Hess Graf said that her office stands behind the investigation done in the Thome shooting and the determination that was reached. “The investigation is not reopened and there is no plan to do so,” said Hess Graf.
In her response to the Times, Pier wrote that the Dzwonchyk investigation is ongoing, adding “whether an investigation involves a simple Misdemeanor or a fatal act of violence, we take every step available to locate evidence. We cannot rush the process, nor do we delay the process if the investigation is complete.”
It’s unclear what evidence her team, which is being led by the County Detective’s office (the DA’s investigative branch), is still gathering in the Dzwonchyk case.
Chief County Detective Jonathan Hess (no relation to the DA) told LebTown he’s “not putting anything out in addition to the press release nor is he fielding any questions about that investigation” when he was asked for an interview for this article.
When Hess Graf was asked by the Times if she had any other comments to make, the DA cited her track record of trying over 100 cases with a near 90 percent conviction rate.
“To anyone who knows who has worked with me, the notion I am incapable of making up my own mind or following my own beliefs is laughable,” she wrote. “I was a prosecutor before my marriage; I remain a prosecutor after my marriage.”
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