More charges dismissed in Mariner East ‘buy-a-badge’ scheme

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick / WITF)

In this file photo, Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018 after sinkholes opened in the area. That caused one of the ME2 project's many delays. (Marie Cusick / WITF)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Chester County common pleas court Judge Jeffrey Sommer has dismissed all charges against Harrisburg resident James Murphy, a security firm employee who had been charged in connection with an alleged bribery scheme related to Mariner East pipeline construction in Chester County.

Former Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan filed charges against Murphy and six others in December 2019 as part of what he called a “buy-a-badge” scheme orchestrated by an employee of Energy Transfer. Hogan alleged that Energy Transfer, parent company of Mariner East pipeline builder Sunoco Logistics, hired armed Pennsylvania constables to illegally provide security for the pipeline and then hid how those constables were paid.

Others charged included two constables, an Energy Transfer employee and two employees of the international security firm Tiger Swan. Murphy worked for Harrisburg-based Raven Knights, which cut the checks for the constables.

In his opinion, Sommer wrote the Commonwealth did not prove its case against Murphy, described simply as an employee of Raven Knights responsible for writing checks. Sommer also wrote that it wasn’t clear from the testimony of two witnesses that the constables had carried weapons or misrepresented themselves as police officers with authority to arrest.

Murphy, a former Pennsylvania state trooper, worked with Richard Lester of Raven Knights LLC to directly hire the constables, at least five of whom worked security at Lisa Drive, according to the original complaint. Murphy is unable to have a detective’s license due to a 2001 felony conviction.

Murphy’s attorney Steve Kelly said he’s happy with the result, and said politics played a role in the original charges.

“We argued to the Court that the decision to file the charges by the former DA against my client, a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper, was likely politically motivated and Mr. Murphy should never have been charged in the first place,” Kelly wrote in an email.

Sommer did not address political motivations in his written opinion.

When announcing the charges in 2019, Hogan said the constables used their badges and guns to intimidate residents living near Mariner East construction sites.

“There’s a very clear line that has to be drawn between law enforcement who is acting for the public good, and the public good alone, and the corporate employee who is acting for the good of the organization,” Hogan said at the time. “You cannot mix those two together.”

The area around Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township drew heightened attention when sinkholes began forming in residential backyards in 2018.

Charges against Energy Transfer employee Frank Recknagel, who had been named as the mastermind behind the alleged scheme, were dismissed at a preliminary hearing last year. Trials are scheduled for the two Tiger Swan employees, Michael Boffo and Nikolas McKinnon, as well as constables Kareem Johnson and Michael Robel. Richard Lester has died.

A spokesperson for the Chester County District Attorney’s Office said they are aware of the judge’s decision and are discussing their next steps.

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