A former Pennsylvania judge is facing criminal charges for allegedly improperly dropping a DUI case brought against a prosecutor’s nephew.
Dwight K. Shaner, 71, who served as a magisterial district judge in Fayette County from January 1986 through his retirement last December, is charged with felony perjury and obstructing the administration of law, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Shaner presided over a preliminary hearing on Dec. 13, 2011 in a criminal case brought against Robert Lee Rudnik, who was accused of slamming his SUV into a mailbox and guardrail in Dunbar Township, then fleeing the scene without stopping.
State police arrested Rudnik at his home, where he admitted to crashing the vehicle after drinking at a local sports bar. A breath test revealed his blood alcohol level to be more than double the legal limit, investigators said.
Rudnik is the nephew of Linda Cordaro, who was at the time a Fayette County assistant district attorney responsible for prosecuting cases in Shaner’s court, court documents state.
At the time of his arrest, Rudnik was seeking admission into a diversionary program for first-time offenders in connection with an unrelated DUI case brought against him several months before in Connellsville.
During Rudnik’s preliminary hearing, Shaner allegedly denied a request by lead investigator Trooper Joseph Ross, of the Pennsylvania State Police, to continue the case due to the last-minute recusal of then-prosecutor Cordaro, according to the criminal complaint filed against Shaner.
Shaner then dismissed the case “without benefit of hearing any testimony,” the complaint states.
After the hearing, he allegedly asked Ross to step into his chambers, lit a cigarette and told the trooper that he dropped the charges “because he was ‘catching some heat’” from Cordaro over the fact that the defendant was her nephew, according to both the criminal complaint and grand jury findings unsealed Thursday.
Cordaro, who is now a judge on the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, maintains she did not alert anyone to the fact that Rudnik was her nephew until the morning of the hearing, when she recused herself from the proceedings, according to the presentment. She has not been charged with any crimes in connection with the incident.
A Fayette County resident in March 2013 filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office claiming Shaner had “fixed” Rudnik’s DUI case, touching off a grand jury probe.
During the review, Shaner’s longtime secretary testified that she couldn’t remember the judge denying a request by the Commonwealth to continue a similar case in the 17 years she worked for his office, according to the grand jury.
Shaner is further accused of lying under oath during grand jury proceedings on Sept. 18, 2013, suggesting that Ross simply never requested a continuance of Rudnik’s case. At least three witnesses to the hearing, including Rudnik's mother, offered testimony to the contrary.
The grand jury concluded Shaner's account of his actions was not credible, but merely "an effort to explain the dismissal of a case that occurred for an improper and illegal purpose."
Shaner was expected to surrender to authorities Thursday, according to a news release from the state Attorney General’s Office.
The Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania filed a petition Thursday seeking to suspend Shaner from any future judicial assignments and to bar him from being granted senior status through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The state Attorney General's Office re-filed charges against Rudnik in March 2013.
He pleaded guilty this past February to DUI and accidents involving damage to unattended vehicles or property. He was ordered to serve to six months of intermediate punishment, including 60 days of house arrest, to pay fines and restitution, and to have his driver’s license suspended for one year.