NOTE: This article has been updated to include comment from Lebanon County Sheriff Jeff Marley.
Jackson Township resident and frequent critic of its board of supervisors Ann Gruber wants to run for a spot on the board, but her felony record bars her from holding the office, a Lebanon County judge ruled at a hearing on March 17.
Gruber’s eligibility as a candidate at the upcoming May 16 primary election was challenged in a petition filed by incumbent township supervisor Thomas Houtz.
In 2019, Gruber entered “nolo contendre” (no contest) pleas to felony charges, two for forgery and one for robbery, in three separate Lebanon County criminal prosecutions. She was sentenced to a combination of jail and probation, and remains on probation at present.
Defendants who enter nolo contendre pleas in Pennsylvania tell the court that they do not have a defense to the charges, but they do not expressly admit that their conduct was criminal. They are subject to the same fines and prison sentences that they would have faced had they actually pleaded guilty.
Houtz based his challenge on Article II, Section 7 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which says: “No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth.”
The incumbent supervisor referred Judge John Tylwalk to Pennsylvania appellate court decisions holding that forgery is an “infamous crime,” and introduced a certified sentencing order for one of Gruber’s felony forgery convictions.
He also cited Gruber’s other two felony convictions, but pointed out that a single infamous crime conviction was enough to disqualify her.
Gruber did not deny that she had pleaded no contest and been sentenced in all three prosecutions. Instead, she asked to be kept on the ballot, telling Tylwalk, “I ask that you let the people decide.”
After hearing from both parties, Tylwalk held that Houtz had proven that Gruber was convicted of an infamous crime and cannot appear on the ballot, stating that being sentenced after entering a nolo contendre plea constituted a “conviction” as much as an actual guilty plea.
Judge denies Gruber’s request for more time to get lawyer
Both parties appeared at the hearing without attorneys.
Before Tylwalk ruled, Gruber told him that she had not been served by the sheriff or a constable with Houtz’s written petition until 6:30 a.m. on March 17, just 3 1/2 hours before the hearing began. In a March 13 court order setting the date and time of the hearing, Tylwalk required “[i]mmediate service by Constable or Sheriff.”
Neither Tylwalk nor Houtz questioned Gruber’s claim. Sheriff’s records reviewed by LebTown confirmed that service was not made until 6:30 a.m. on the day of the hearing, although an attempt by the Sheriff to serve Gruber at her home may have been made sometime before the morning of March 17.
Gruber had earlier posted on social media a photo of Tylwalk’s order setting the date and time of the hearing, which she maintained had been taped to her front door. Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure do not authorize taping legal papers to a party’s door as a proper method of service in most civil lawsuits, unless specifically authorized by the court.
Tylwalk denied Gruber’s request to postpone the hearing so she could consult with a lawyer, citing March 17 as the last day under the law to hold the hearing and his belief that the evidence against Gruber was clear.
Lebanon County Sheriff Jeff Marley told LebTown on Tuesday afternoon, March 21, that his deputies made two attempts to serve Gruber at her home with Houtz’s petition and with notice of the date and time of the hearing. Marley said that no one answered the door on either occasion.
As a result, Marley said, deputies taped a separate notice on her door, asking her to contact the Sheriff’s office to make arrangements for service.
Judge rules on Houtz’s other requests
Houtz also asked Tylwalk to order Gruber to reimburse him for the $381.25 in court costs he paid to get his challenge heard by the court. Tylwalk denied the request.
Houtz asserted that Gruber falsely said in her nominating petition that she was qualified to hold the office of township supervisor, knowing that her felony convictions disqualified her. Houtz suggested that this constitutes the criminal offense of perjury.
Tylwalk granted Houtz’s request that a copy of the court order removing Gruber from the ballot be sent to the Lebanon County District Attorney, but expressed no opinion on that issue.
Gruber has history with Jackson Township
In 2015, Gruber ran unsuccessfully for township commissioner, losing to Dean Moyer.
Also in 2015, Gruber was charged with disrupting a township meeting and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors. A jury convicted her of both, and she received a year’s probation.
She has also accused the township of treating her unfairly.
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