WEST CHESTER — The attorney who won dismissal of criminal charges against a Delaware County man accused of orchestrating a “buy-a-badge” scheme to provide security for the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline construction project said Monday that the case had been unduly influenced by political considerations rather than “sound, fair prosecutorial decisions.”
Justin Danilewitz of the Philadelphia law firm of Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr said in an interview that he had urged the Chester County District Attorney’s Office on multiple occasions not to file charges of bribery and conspiracy against his client, Frank Recknagel, the head of security for Energy Transfers Partners, the parent company of Sunoco Pipelines, which is building the massive project through Chester and Delaware counties.
He said he had given the prosecution ample evidence that Recknagel had done nothing wrong in getting state constables to work as off-duty security on the pipeline, and had been in consultation with local township police and elected officials about their work.
But he was ultimately put off, and left shaken after the charges were filed late last year.
On Thursday, Magisterial District Judge John Bailey of West Whiteland dismissed all charges against Recknagel at the conclusion of a five-hour-long preliminary hearing. Bailey determined that the prosecution had not shown that Recknagel had sought to commit a crime in the matter, and had, in fact, tried the best he could to follow the law, Danilewitz said.
“Our argument to the judge was essentially no different than the argument we made to the D.A.’s Office on many occasions,” Danilewitz, who was assisted in Recknagel’s defense by defense attorney Thomas Bellwoar of West Chester. “Our client had no criminal intent. Our point was that he was a careful security person, and that he would ultimately be vindicated.
“We shared emails he had written with the D.A.’s Office before (former District Attorney) Tom Hogan decided to bring charges,” Danilewitz said. He contended that they showed that Recknagel had never meant to commit the crimes Hogan’s office accused him of.
“But given the political backdrop of this matter, it is fair to say that politics animated this prosecution,” the attorney said. “It is troubling to see politics intrude into what should be sound, fair, prosecutorial decisions. It is dangerous for politics to come into prosecutorial decisions."
Asked if it was Hogan’s own personal political considerations driving the case, Danilewitz declined to comment.
Hogan left the D.A.’s Office in January after withdrawing from a race for a third term as the county’s top law enforcement officer in July. He could not be reached for comment Monday. His LinkedIn page listed his current status as on sabbatical and his activities as “reading, writing, and thinking."
Current District Attorney Deb Ryan, who inherited the prosecutions of Recknagel and six others in the pipeline security case, issued a statement in which she said no decision had been made whether to re-file charges against Recknagel or continue with the cases against the others.
“Although we disagree with the decision of the court, we respect the court’s position,” she said in an email. “Based on the evidence recovered during this lengthy investigation, the District Attorney’s Office felt it was appropriate to bring this case to the court for a preliminary hearing. We will thoroughly review our options before deciding what steps to take with Mr. Recknagel.
“Since there are other defendants in this matter, we are unable to comment further at this time,” Ryan said.
An anti-pipeline activist from West Whiteland said she hoped that the D.A. would continue to pursue the matter.
“The former Chester County District Attorney charged Recknagel with multiple counts of corruption, bribery and official oppression, conduct that is at the center of the ways in which Sunoco's proposed export pipeline project has trampled on the basic rights of Pennsylvanians to safety and private property,” said Ginny Kerslake of West Whiteland Residents for Pipeline Safety.
“We call on District Attorney Deb Ryan to refile these charges and to continue the criminal investigation into Sunoco and any government agencies that facilitated it,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Energy Transfers celebrated Bailey’s decision to dismiss the case against Recknagel.
“We are delighted for Frank and his family that the court found there was no legal basis for the charges,” said Lisa Coleman. “The court’s ruling vindicated Frank and recognized his professionalism and cooperation with local law enforcement in and around Chester County with regard to the security operations of Energy Transfer.
“The Chester County District Attorney’s Office overreached on this case, and despite our cooperation and transparency with the D.A.’s office, the D.A. still proceeded with this matter,” she added. “Frank remains a valued member of the Energy Transfer family, as he has been for many years. Energy Transfer remains committed to being a good corporate citizen in Chester County and the Commonwealth.
The Mariner East 2 project has, indeed, become a political topic across the county, with candidates for office weighing in on the construction and protests sometimes becoming confrontational. It has sparked heated opposition in the community, and been plagued by a series of runoffs, spills and sinkholes.
The project is a series of pipelines that will transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of volatile liquid gases such as ethane, butane and propane across the full width of Pennsylvania, from the Marcellus Shale region to a facility in Marcus Hook. The route traverses 23 miles through the heart of central Chester County, and 11 miles of western Delaware County.
The pipeline has drawn attention not only from the county D.A.’s Office, but also the state Attorney General and the FBI. Neither of those agencies, however, have filed criminal charges.
In December, the county filed charges including multiple counts of bribery, conspiracy, and dealing in unlawful proceeds against Recknagel, 59, of Havertown, and four others — Nicholas McKinnon, of Stafford, Va., senior security adviser for Tiger Swan LLC, an international security firm; Michael Boffo, of Jacksonville, N.C., site security manager of Tiger Swan; James Murphy, of Harrisburg, operator of Raven Knights LLC, a Harrisburg-area security firm; and Richard Lester, of Linglestown, registered owner of Raven Knights. Both Murphy and Lester are reportedly former state police troopers.
The complaint filed by Chester County Detective Ben Martin alleged that Recknagel, schemed to hide payments to state constables in order to allow the pipeline operator to have armed, uniformed officials providing security.
Hiring off-duty law enforcement officials was Energy Transfer’s “unwritten policy.” In order to accomplish that, the complaint alleges he engaged in a "buy-a-badge scheme" in which the payments to the constables were hidden and difficult to trace back to the company.
According to the criminal complaint, rather than hire a private security firm, Energy Transfer decided instead to recruit and hire armed state constables, because of the power their badges would carry. State constables, although elected officials, are not permitted to use their official position or badges for private security jobs, the complaint alleges.
The men appeared at pipeline sites in Chester County as security personnel, wearing constable attire, while armed and displaying constable badges. Last summer, two of those men were charged with bribery as well as violations of the state Ethics Act.
But in Recknagel’s defense, Danilewitz argued that although the security chief wanted to use constables along the pipeline, he never asked that they display their badges or hold themselves out as working for a court or judge — the official duties of a constable.
He pointed out that Recknagel had also asked former West Whiteland Police Chief Joseph Catov if he would approve of township officers working as security personnel on their off-hours — the sort of “moonlighting” that is permitted by the township. Catov declined.
But when the former chief was called to testify at Recknagel’s preliminary hearing last week, Bellwoar said he was asked what his reaction to news of the criminal charges was.
“Frankly, I was shocked,” Bellwoar quoted Catov as responding.
Although the two attorneys were hired solely to represent Recknagel and not the other men, Danilewitz said he believed there were factual and legal similarities between his client’s case and those of the other men charged.
“The District Attorney’s Office is going to have to seriously rethink its charging decisions in all these cases,” he said.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.