Pa. prosecutor accused of corruption once a standout Philly student

Prosecutor Charged
This March 1, 2018 photo shows Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins in Saxton, Pa. On Wednesday, April 4, 2018, Higgins was arraigned on 31 counts, including charges of witness intimidation, official oppression and obstruction. (Katie Smolen/Bedford Gazette via AP)

BEDFORD, Pa. — When William J. Higgins Jr. was a senior at Cardinal Dougherty High School in North Philadelphia in the 1990s, he drove four hours one Saturday morning to participate in a mock trial event near State College, dragging along a schoolmate to serve as his second chair.

Higgins won a mock conviction in a drunken driving case that weekend.

“He showed up because he had promised to show up,” said David Trevaskis, a Philadelphia-area lawyer and mentor to Higgins, recalling the competition. “That’s somebody who’s going to make something of themselves.”

The success that day planted the seeds of a career that led Higgins, a smart, working-class city kid, to the prosecutor’s office in rural Bedford County and ultimately its top office. For 14 years, he served as Bedford’s district attorney.

On Wednesday, his career came crashing down with the unveiling of a long-running investigation that portrayed Higgins as a law enforcer turned criminal — allegedly protecting female drug dealers from prosecution in exchange for sexual favors, and tipping off dealers about confidential police informants. A criminal complaint released by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged Higgins with obstruction, reckless endangerment, witness intimidation, and other counts.

The 43-year-old prosecutor compromised drug investigations by refusing to authorize valid search warrants and “recklessly disclosing the identity of confidential informants, thereby placing in jeopardy their lives” and the lives of law-enforcement officers, State Police Cpl. James Aughinbaugh wrote in an affidavit.

Higgins, a husband and father of three, quickly resigned from office. “I have been accused of engaging in conduct unbecoming of a district attorney, but more importantly, unbecoming of a husband and father,” he said in a statement. He added he could not comment further for legal reasons.

Higgins had endured a few bumps in his life and career, but this was a stunning fall for a Philadelphia-bred lawyer who managed to make a name for himself — and who credited his mock trial experience in high school with shaping his future.

“My family was not a family of lawyers, and like many kids at Cardinal Dougherty High School, I grew up needing to work — as I did at the local 7-Eleven,” he wrote in a 2010 Pennsylvania Bar Association newsletter. “Because of the mock trial program, the prospect of me becoming a lawyer became more of a reality.”

His partner that day, Brendan Boyle, also was a high achiever. Boyle, now in Congress, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Higgins went to Villanova University, according to an online biography, then Widener University Delaware Law School in Wilmington.

In 1998, while 23 and in his second year of law school, Higgins and a friend were convicted of simple assault after prosecutors said they beat up fans of the Green Bay Packers during an Eagles game at Veterans Stadium, court records and news clippings show.

The Packers fans said Higgins and his friends, their faces painted in Eagles colors, cursed them, pushed them, ripped their clothes and punched them. One 50-something school teacher said she was knocked out and later suffered from recurrent headaches. Higgins, who said he had downed four beers in the parking lot before the game, denied being the aggressor but was contrite.

“I would apologize for everything that happened,” he testified, “and I apologize to the court for having to go through all this.”

Judge William Meehan was lenient, putting Higgins and his friend on probation and later trimming the probation so it wouldn’t block Higgins from taking the bar exam.

“I think you’ve learned your lessons, and I don’t believe I am going to see you back in criminal court,” the judge said at sentencing.

But Higgins had trouble finding a job as a lawyer in the Philadelphia area, Trevaskis said. Ultimately he was able to land one in Bedford, about 200 miles west.

With a population of 50,000, the county is home to state game lands and is anchored by a small, quiet town with the same name — the kind of place where people say hello to someone on the sidewalk as they pass. The county is heavily Republican, voting 5-1 in favor of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

After working a couple years as an assistant district attorney, Higgins ran in the 2003 Republican primary against his former boss, District Attorney Dwight Diehl, and won with 71 percent of the vote. He won the general election.

“A Philly kid in Bedford,” Trevaskis said. “Got to say, that’s pretty amazing.”

At first, Higgins seemed ambitious but earnest, motivated by doing the right thing on the job, according to interviews with law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation. The sources asked to speak on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

But in time he clashed with investigators, who in turn became suspicious of his prosecutorial decisions. Among them were state police and attorney general’s officials who, off and on for more than a decade, had concerns about how Higgins conducted himself in office, the sources said.

As district attorney, Higgins oversaw cases involving an attorney accused of molesting a girl, drug sweeps, and an attempt to solve the mystery behind an unidentified set of remains nicknamed “Mr. Bones.”

One high-profile case came to a head in 2008.

That year, Higgins prosecuted a rare death-penalty case in the county. Joseph Clark, now 58, was accused of kidnapping a woman from outside her mobile home, where she was giving her two small children baths. Clark killed her and set her car on fire.

A jury convicted Clark of first-degree murder and other charges but spared him the death penalty, sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But just weeks later, the district attorney suffered one of his first professional setbacks. In August 2008, news broke that a woman had filed a private complaint alleging that Higgins had sexually assaulted her in the courthouse following a meeting of Bedford County Republicans. Higgins, who was vice chair of the organization, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time that he had committed adultery but not a crime.

Then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican whose office had coordinated some investigations with Higgins’ office, declined to file charges. A spokesman said at the time that the complaint lacked “physical evidence” and “credible specificity,” and that there was “significant evidence which contradicts the allegations,” though he would not outline that evidence.

Following the sexual assault allegations, Higgins squeaked through his next election in 2011, defeating Democratic challenger Kristin Banasick by fewer than 200 votes, according to county records.

Nevertheless, state police and officials with the Attorney General’s Office continued to field complaints against Higgins from defendants and others who came into contact with him, culminating in the charges filed this week, sources said. The state police probe into Higgins began as a drug investigation in 2015, Shapiro said Wednesday.

Higgins was arraigned on the charges Wednesday and released on $50,000 bail. No trial date has been set. He could not be reached for comment Thursday, but his attorney, Steven Passarello, told the Associated Press that his client maintains his innocence and questions the credibility of the witnesses against him.

Trevaskis, his former mentor, was shocked by the news. He said he thought Higgins might one day become a judge.

“Where he was and how he was viewed in that community, he was set up for life,” he said Thursday. “His family was rightfully proud of what he did. People cared about him, thought he was doing great stuff.”

Then, Trevaskis added, “it turned out he was not.”

Staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Chris Brennan contributed to this article.