Politics /

Felons In Office: Libertarian Mayoral Election Hinges On Disputed Pennsylvania Law

Under the state’s constitution, anyone convicted of an 'infamous crime' is not permitted to hold public office

An elected libertarian mayor will go to court with the state of Pennsylvania after her eligibility was questioned and she was denied the ability to take the oath of office.

The conflict, which occurred in a rural town with fewer than 17,000 residents, highlights an inconclusive line in the state’s constitution that determines if criminal history can disqualify someone from holding public office.

Kate Crosby grew up 15 minutes from Austin, a small town in Potter County, Pennsylvania, and has spent most of her life in the area.

“People here just want to be left alone. They want freedom,” Crosby told Timcast. “They move here because it’s low taxes. It is really more of an honorary mayor position.”

Crosby said she was drawn to libertarianism because of its emphasis on personal freedom and calls for minimal government regulation. She also appreciated that it was an anti-war party.

Crosby’s first husband served in the United States Marine Corps and committed suicide in 2014. She attributes his death to the mental anguish caused by his wartime experiences.

Crosby became more politically engaged following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the widespread lockdowns and mandates. As a member of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, Crosby volunteered, canvased, and eventually held events for libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgenson.

Crosby said her connections in the libertarian party encouraged her to run for office. She was interested in advocating for liberty and wanted to audit the town to increase transparency regarding how money was spent. She said she also wanted people to understand the importance of local elections.

“A lot of people … they don’t seem very interested in local level elections that we have. We have low voter turnout rates around here,” Crosby said. “People just think the only way to change anything is to vote for the president and hope they can do something.”

“I wanted to help teach and educate during my campaign that the way we really get things done is at the local level. What’s best for Austin isn’t what’s best for New York City or, you know, California or whatever,” she added. “A lot of people are just not aware or educated on what exactly you can do in your local town.”

Despite her ideals, Crosby did have some concerns about running for office. She was in the middle of an ongoing legal battle that would ultimately leave her with a criminal record.

On Dec. 21, 2014, Crosby was involved in a 3 A.M. car accident that injured one man and killed another who were walking home from a local bar.

According to Crosby, the incident occurred the night of her husband’s funeral.

“I was driving around a corner in an old back road,” Crosby recalled. “There are no street lights down the road. There’s not sidewalks. When I came around the corner, I could never see them. My windshield just caved in.”

Crosby (who is also known as Katilyn Crosby Wolfel) was 21 at the time with no prior criminal history. She was charged with homicide by vehicle while DUI, aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI, DUI highest rate, DUI first offense, DUI combination of alcohol and controlled substance, and careless driving.

The legal process took several years. She spent 19 months in jail before being found guilty or sentenced. Her defense team argued in October of 2015 that the state’s blood-alcohol evidence was inadmissible and the judge agreed. Her bail was set initially at $50,000 cash and then lowered to $30,000 in 2016.

Seven years after the car accident, Crosby was sentenced in July of 2021.

Crosby agreed to take a peal deal — one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of aggravated assault by motor vehicle.

“It makes it sound intentional, the way they word some of the charges,” Crosby said. She added, “The DA … said I had to take a felony or he wasn’t going to accept a plea from me.”

At the time, she says she was in the middle of her campaign to be elected mayor of the borough of Austin. She said she has been transparent about the accident with everyone who encouraged her to run for office and who was involved with her campaign.

“Everyone around here knows,” Crosby said. “It is such a small town that people already knew before they voted for me.”

Crosby was elected the mayor of Austin on Nov. 3, 2021, beating the incumbent Republican mayor.

On Dec. 30, Crosby got a call from Potter County District Attorney Andy Watson. Crosby said  Watson told her about a constitutional statute that may disqualify her from serving as mayor.

Crosby said she was aware of the statute but had been advised that it did not apply to local offices. Still, she told Watson that she did not want to risk the possibility of facing criminal charges. Watson informed her she would not but that a judge would make a ruling on the case in civil court.

Crosby said Watson asked her if she would be willing to resign. She said she was not.

“I’m dually elected. Why would I resign when we don’t know and you are just guessing?” she asked. 

At the core of the question of Crosby’s right to take office is Article 2, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, titled “Ineligibility by criminal convictions.”

According to the statute, “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.”

Crosby says while some lawyers contend that infamous crimes included all felonies, other lawyers told her they only applied to specific crimes that involved defrauding the public.

District Attorney Andy Watson said that while the law did not specifically say which crimes were considered infamous, case law established that all felony charges make individual ineligibility to hold public office in Pennsylvania. 

Speaking with Timcast, Watson said he personally has never come across this issue before.

Watson, also a Potter County native, has served as the Assitant District Attorney of the county from 1997 to 2005. He was elected to the District Attorney’s Office in 2010.

Watson said he became aware of Kate Crosby and her election after a county resident reached out to his office.

“One person in particular from the community came to me and advised that Ms. Crosby had won the election but believed that she had been previously convicted of various crimes in a neighboring county,” he told Timcast.

Watson was able to verify that Kate had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault by vehicle. He then contacted the borough of Austin and its solicitor to see if they wanted him to take action. After a month, the borough made a formal request that he file a quo warnto, which challenges a person’s right to hold public office 

The DA confirmed that during the interim period of time, he called Crosby and discussed Article 7, Section 2 in December of 2021. He said, as he would in any other case, he wanted to understand her intentions and notify her of what actions he was required to take. He said that he did ask her if she was willing to voluntarily resign.

He noted that Crosby was polite, asked several questions, and told him that she wanted to talk to her lawyer.

Crosby said in her interview that she did not hear from Watson or his office again after the December phone call. Watson says he tried to get ahold of her in early 2022 and was unsuccessful.

His office began to prepare its complaint against Crosby in January. 

Watson said per the constitutional article inquisition, “no person can hold an elected office if they have been convicted of what is generally referred to as an ‘infamous crime” and other criminal falsities or crimes involving dishonesty.”

This can include perjury, burglary, providing a false statement, criminal trespass, or theft.

“Based on her conviction for homicide by vehicle felony 3 — under the PA Constitution — it is my interpretation of the law that she would be disqualified from holding that mayor position,” Watson said.

Watson said he came to this conclusion after reviewing relevant case law. He noted, in particular, the 2011 case of Commonwealth Kearney III v. Rambler which analyzed whether a federal felony conviction of a man who won an election for mayor constitutes an “infamous crime” under the Pennsylvania constitution.

“I would never, ever, ever file any action to remove a person from public office unless I was very confident in my research,” Watson said. “This is kind of a big deal … because the community has spoken in regards to who they want to serve as their elected official, in this case being a mayor.”

“What none of us know is how the constituents who voted for Ms. Crosby — did they have any knowledge of her prior?” Watson asked. He said that given the intertwining chronology of the election and Crosby’s convictions, he was not able to say with certainty what the public knew about her criminal history. 

“Throughout the proceedings, we will acquire a lot more information about background … about how we got through the general election, about what she knew and what she didn’t know,” said Watson.

Crosby went to her town council meeting on Jan. 3, 2022, intending to take her oath of office. She said the borough secretary asked if she had talked to anyone about taking the oath, which struck Crosby as odd. She also said the secretary implied it would be a crime if she took the oath. Ultimately, the borough refused to administer her oath.

Initially, Crosby thought it might have to do with her party affiliation as she said she knew other libertarians in her state who were having problems taking the oath of office.

The Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania did not return Timcast’s request for comment on this story.

After researching the rules, she found she could be sworn in by a district magistrate, a judge, or a notary. She met with a public notary at a lawyer’s office and took her oath of office on Jan. 28 — five days before her election would have been considered a forfeit had she not been sworn in.

On Jan. 31, Potter County served Crosby with the quo warranto complaint.

The ambiguity of the “infamous crimes” law has come up in local elections across the state. 

The City of York went to court over Mayor Michael Helfrich’s criminal history in 2012 when he was elected to the city council. Helfrich was convicted in 1991 on two felony drug charges, per the York Dispatch.

Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh ultimately ruled that his felony drug conviction did not constitute an “infamous crime.”

The city is currently seeking legal analysis after it came to light that the registered Democrat, who ran as a Republican, did not take his oath of office for his second term at a council meeting as required by law. Helfrich took the oath of office on Jan. 24, 2022 via Facebook Live.

Also in York County, Libertarian Dave Womack was elected to serve on the Dallastown Borough Council after receiving 95% of the votes. He was prevented from taking office after York County District Attorney Dave Sunday filed an injunction. Sunday cited the “infamous crime” constitutional statute. 

Under the United States Constitution, there are only three qualifications to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. A candidate has to be the minimum age of 25 years old, have been an American citizen for at least seven years, and currently live in the state he would represent. 

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. vs. Thornton, states are not permitted to add to or alter the qualifications. Men who have been convicted and who are incarcerated have, on multiple occasions, launched Congressional campaigns.

States can, however, restrict who is allowed to serve in their governments and at a local level.

“So I could be in Congress but I can’t be the mayor in my small town,” Crosby said.

Crosby added that her community is now very aware of the importance of local elections.

“All this has done is drummed up more enthusiasm from the public to be involved locally,” she said. “So either way, my goal is being accomplished.”

“People want to be involved. People want to know what’s going on. They want to make the town better. People are fed up with the borough council and how it’s been for years.”

She said people have reached out to her to run for borough council as libertarians in the future.

“People are interested again,” she says.

Crosby intends to challenge the state’s complaint against her. Under state law, she is allowed to serve and act in the capacity of mayor until the court removes her from the office.

DA Watson said that while the law has progressed over the year following a more recent interpretation, he was not aware of a case of this nature where the elected official with a felony was able to stay in office.

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