With private money fueling fight against drug crime in Blair County, public defenders feel squeezed

The opioid crisis has brought with it an onslaught of drug cases that are adding to the burdens of public defenders.

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA. Private funding for the District Attorney Office and local law enforcement has put immense pressure on the county's public defenders. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA. Private funding for the District Attorney Office and local law enforcement has put immense pressure on the county's public defenders. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Growing up, Michael Fiore didn’t worry about drugs or the violence in Blair County. Back then, he says the area, home to Altoona and Hollidaysburg, was safe.

But as he got older, he saw things change with the rise of the opioid crisis.

It’s a complaint that’s become more common across the United States as the epidemic has caused tens of thousands overdose deaths and provoked an onslaught of problems that communities have struggled to address.

Fiore, 56, whose family owns a general contracting business, wanted to do something about it.

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In 2006, he founded a nonprofit, Operation Our Town, to fill some of the void.

Michael Fiore, founder of Operation Our Town, speaks at the organization’s sixth annual golf fundraiser in Altoona. (Photo courtesy of Operation Our Town)

“When I founded this organization, I put 25 names of businesses together, and I went out and asked everyone – not one turned me down,” Fiore said. “I actually ended up with 28.”

Since then, the organization has raised nearly $4 million in private funding to help Blair County more aggressively police and prosecute drug crimes.

The extra money has made a difference. The organization points to the increase in the number of drug arrests and prosecutions as a point of pride in its fight against the drug epidemic.

Keystone Crossroads found that the county had the second highest number of criminal drug cases per capita in the commonwealth, following Philadelphia.

Graphic by Min Xian

To some, this has been a clear boon for a county that saw 52 overdose deaths last year and has had a drug death rate higher than the state average.

But others, especially in the Blair County Public Defender’s Office, worry the group’s influence has led to more aggressive prosecution of minor crimes that criminalize drug users who could be better served by treatment.

‘No turning back’

On a recent weekday, Operation Our Town held its sixth annual golf fundraiser at a club alongside I-99 in Altoona. A buzz of conversation, laughter, and greetings extended from the reception area all the way to the tents along the golf course. Nearly 300 golfers attended, making swings as well as donations.

Fiore was at the center of it all, his vision come to life.

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“It’s a cause,” Fiore said. “We talk about drugs, we talk about the violent crimes, but it’s really [about] the kids and the community — giving them an opportunity, a fighting chance.”

According to the organization’s website, Operation Our Town gets most of its money from business donations; the rest comes from federal grants.

At Operation Our Town’s sixth annual golf fundraiser, organizers display an array of sponsor signs. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Some money goes to after-school programs and community roundtables as prevention efforts.

“It’s just unfair. I mean, kids just don’t have – if they make that choice, there’s no turning back,” Fiore said.

The bulk of the group’s funding, though, has gone to local law enforcement, including the county’s drug task force. Last year, it gave police more than $150,000 to pay for things such as tactical equipment, a drug-sniffing dog and forensic software.

Operation Our Town also provides the county with grants that are earmarked for the district attorney’s office, including one that covers the salary of an assistant district attorney who is specifically assigned to prosecute drug cases.

“We knew the arrests were going to go up, and [law enforcement] said, ‘If we’re going to make all these arrests, we don’t have enough prosecution power. So we need another DA to focus on drug prosecution,’ ” Fiore said. “We fund them every year and give them the tools that they need to really be successful at what they’re doing.”

At the entrance of the Blair County District Attorney’s Office, an Operation Our Town flyer greets visitors. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

For 10 years, that special drug prosecutor was Peter Weeks, who said there was a dire need for the aggressive clampdown supported by the operation.

“When you burglarize your grandparents’ residence, and steal their wedding ring that they’ve had for 50 years, and sell it for two bags of heroin, there’s something wrong with you,” said Weeks, who’s now the first assistant district attorney of Blair County, recounting a case that he prosecuted. “That shows you the power of drug addiction, and that’s not the kind of crime anyone should want in their community.”

Peter Weeks was Blair County’s drug prosecutor for 10 years before becoming its first assistant district attorney. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

The reaction among public defenders in Blair County has been less enthusiastic.

“People use drugs because they are trying to cope with a life that they can’t cope with sober. If you put criminal sanctions on top of that, it just becomes worse,” said Julie Burke, an assistant public defender.

Julie Burke has been a public defender in Blair County for five years. She opposes the district attorney’s aggressive drug prosecution and the philosophy of its funder, Operation Our Town. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Burke, who has been with the Blair County Public Defender’s Office for five years, said Operation Our Town has put immense pressure on her already overworked colleagues.

And she said the group is not really addressing the root of the drug problem.

The DA’s office and the drug task force make arrests and pursue harsh charges without making the distinction between drug dealers and drug users who commit low-level crimes, Burke said.

Anthony Kattouf, another assistant public defender in the county, has handled some of those cases.

“Around here, you’re getting a lot of [cases of] simple possessions, paraphernalia, that are so minor that I don’t think need to be prosecuted as heavily as they are. But they still are around here,” Kattouf said. “And we’re left short staffed to deal with that. It’s very difficult at times.”

Anthony Kattouf, a Blair County assistant public defender. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

So, many people in need of treatment end up behind bars, Burke said.

“That’s one of the other problems with the lack of resources — they have a ton of money to go out and arrest people. We are overwhelmed defending them,” she said.

Tipping the scale?

Blair, like all counties in Pennsylvania, does not receive state funds to run its public defender office. The state is the only one in the country to provide neither funding nor oversight for its indigent defense system, leaving some to question if it’s living up to its constitutional obligation.

In Blair County, Burke said, that means the influx of private funds for law enforcement and prosecution has put her office at an even greater disadvantage. Sometimes, Burke feels as if she’s not properly serving her clients.

A Keystone Crossroads analysis of 2015 data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts found that public defenders in Blair each juggled an average caseload of about 250 adult criminal cases, one of the highest rates in Pennsylvania. But even this number doesn’t indicate the actual workload of the public defenders, since the office also handles parole matters, summary offenses and more that isn’t reflected in AOPC data.

A bird’s-eye view of the Lakemont Park in Altoona. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Since 2015, things have improved. The public defender office’s budget doubled – as has the district attorney’s. This year, another full-time defender was hired.

But Burke still feels as if she’s spread too thin.

“Any time you’re choosing to work on one thing, you’re choosing not to work on everything else,” she said.

Now, Blair County has six full-time public defenders, while the eight-attorney contingent at the DA’s office has a budget nearly 70 percent more than the public defender’s office.

Weeks in the DA’s office minimizes the idea that things are tipped against the public defenders. He said the entire county government is underfunded.

“I would agree that prosecutors and public defenders, especially in Blair county, are drastically underfunded. Our operating budgets are far less than similar-sized counties,” Weeks said. “But it certainly would not be the responsibility of citizens looking to make their community safer to pay for the criminal defense of people who are involved in making their community unsafe.”

That sentiment, Burke said, speaks to a common misunderstanding of her job as a public defender.

“I spend my day trying to humanize people and show the complexity of their existence and that they’re not just their criminal charges — that is not representative of who they are,” Burke said. “We’re not sanctioning the conduct. But I think every human being can be defended for their humanity, even if they did a bad thing.”

No matter the complaints of public defenders, Operation Our Town has no intention of slowing its efforts.

“We’re not here to do anything out of what we’re supposed to do,” said Shawna Hoover, the executive coordinator of the operation. “We want the community to get better.”

Businesses in Blair County continue to agree. Noteworthy institutions such as Sheetz, PNC Bank and the UPMC Health Plan are sponsors.

Back at the golf course, Fiore deemed the fundraiser a success, pulling in more than $100,000. He called it “a remarkable achievement from the community.”

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