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Judge’s connection to driller in Pennsylvania pollution case – CBS Pittsburgh

(AP) — The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office said it may seek to remove a judge who is expected to preside over a criminal case in which he has ties to the defendant — the state’s largest gas driller, who was charged with polluting water supplies of residential areas in a community where residents are known to have been able to set their tap water on fire.

In 2020, prosecutors charged Cabot Oil & Gas with leaking methane from the company’s faulty gas wells into the aquifers of the rural village of Dimock and nearby communities. Cabot, now known as Coterra Energy Inc. after a recent merger, has long denied responsibility for the contamination of Dimock’s groundwater. The company faces nine criminal offenses and six administrative offenses.

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Susquehanna County Judge Jason Legg is a board member of a charitable foundation that has received millions of dollars in corporate donations from Houston-based Cabot. A Cabot executive is also on the board.

The judge’s involvements became an issue in a recent independent civil case involving Cabot. Legg withdrew from that case, but as Susquehanna County’s only full-time judge, you would normally expect him to direct the state’s prosecution. Cabot recently waived his right to a preliminary hearing and referred the case to the district court, but a judge was not appointed.

“We are aware of Judge Legg’s denial in the other case and will not hesitate to make this motion when the time comes,” Jacklin Rhoads, spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said in response to questions from The Associated Press.

Legg’s office referred the comment to the administrative office that oversees Pennsylvania courts, which said the case has yet to go before the judge. Prosecutors have said they are trying to come to terms with the drill, noting that a settlement could bring more significant benefits to affected homeowners than a conviction.

In the civil suit, Cabot alleges that a Dimock resident and his former attorneys attempted to blackmail him through frivolous litigation. Cabot claimed resident Ray Kemble and the law firms were trying to garner media attention and “poison” the community by recycling “stale, billed claims” of pollution. Kemble and his former attorneys say Cabot is targeting them to deter residents from suing in the future.

In December, the law firms asked Legg to step down, citing in part his serving on the board of the Community Foundation of the Endless Mountains. Cabot had donated $6.4 million to the charity since 2010, according to records attached to the law firms’ rejection application.

Kemble’s former attorneys also sought legal advice from Ron Castille, the retired chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who wrote that Legg should withdraw from the case.

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“Reasonable minds might conclude that a charity board member (like Judge Legg) would prefer a large charitable donor (here Cabot Oil) to maintain the donor’s ongoing financial support,” Castille wrote.

“Indeed, sane minds might even conclude that Cabot Oil is seeking a benevolent legal forum … with a seemingly friendly (in Cabot’s opinion) law enforcement officer to negotiate its multimillion-dollar damages claim,” Castille wrote. He also noted that Cabot official George Stark sits on the Community Foundation board alongside Legg.

Cabot defied Legg’s rejection and attempted to get Castille’s report thrown out of court. He called the law firms’ efforts to have the judge removed a “horrifying display of judge purchases” and a “desperate, last-ditch effort” to avoid having to turn over funds and tax records to Cabot.

Legg withdrew nonetheless. In a Feb. 10 order, he wrote that the Community Foundation had been subpoenaed as part of the civil suit. Because the charity asked him to vacate the subpoena, “I cannot exercise my judicial capacity … without creating an appearance of impropriety,” Legg wrote.

Castille declined to comment to the AP on whether he believes Legg should now withdraw from the criminal case.

“My opinion could be offered as a supportive walkout, but it is NOT authoritative in any other case,” he said via email. Castille said it was up to the attorney general’s office to seek a stay-out, or Legg himself could “evaluate his involvement in the criminal case.”

Legg is Susquehanna County’s only full-time judge. The Administrative Bureau of the Pennsylvania Courts has hired a retired judge from neighboring Luzerne County to hear Cabot’s civil case.

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https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2022/03/04/judges-connection-to-driller-at-issue-in-pennsylvania-pollution-case/ Judge’s connection to driller in Pennsylvania pollution case – CBS Pittsburgh

TaraSubramaniam

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