Bedford County District Attorney Bill Higgins was charged last week with 31 counts of obstruction, reckless endangerment, and witness intimidation. The charges stem from allegations that he protected female drug dealers in exchange for sex and revealed to them the identities of confidential police informants. Higgins promptly resigned from his post.
The disgraced DA is hardly an aberration. In the last two years, two other high-profile Pennsylvania prosecutors have gone to prison for serious misconduct, including former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who was indicted in 2017 for bribery, extortion, and fraud. Williams was sentenced in October. Attorney General Kathleen Kane was convicted in August 2016 for illegally leaking grand jury records in an attempt to discredit a critic and then lying about it to a different grand jury.
Misconduct by prosecutors must be taken seriously because they are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors’ decisions — including which crimes to prioritize, what charges to bring, and whether to offer plea bargains — are essentially unreviewable. The only real check on their power is the ballot box.
But elections can create further opportunity for prosecutorial misconduct and scandal.
Like all public officials who have to run for election, prosecutors have to fund their campaigns through contributions. It is up to voters to ensure that campaign contributions do not cause elected officials to make decisions that are against the public interest. Voter vigilance is particularly important in a state like Pennsylvania that imposes no limit on how much a donor can give a candidate.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvania voters, finding information about candidates for district attorney is difficult. Although state election law requires counties to make DA campaign finance reports available for public inspection, only seven of the state’s 67 counties post those reports online. Many of the other 60 counties’ websites have information for candidates about how to file campaign finance reports, but virtually none of them provide instructions for voters to obtain information about contributions to candidates for district attorney. This puts Pennsylvania voters at a disadvantage.
Most other states compile prosecutors’ campaign finance reports on a centralized website that allows voters to easily search for a candidate and view exactly where donations have come from.
New York, for example, has put all campaign finance information in a searchable database available to the public. Journalists have made good use of that information. Reports surfaced late last year that the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., accepted contributions from lawyers for the Trump Organization while his office was investigating Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for fraud. Vance decided not to bring charges against them, and has faced considerable criticism for that decision.
It should be easy for all voters to find out who is donating to their district attorney candidates’ political campaigns. Pennsylvania should follow the example of states like New York and make all campaign finance information for prosecutor candidates available on the secretary of state’s website.
In a state with a long history of political corruption, transparency and accountability are imperative. It is certainly possible that Pennsylvania’s candidates for district attorney do not have any unsavory information in their campaign finance reports. But given how many other scandals have plagued Pennsylvania prosecutors recently, it doesn’t seem safe to assume that all campaign contributions are entirely innocent.
With open access to all campaign contribution information, Pennsylvania voters will be able to hold their elected DAs accountable, which will help protect the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
Carissa Byrne Hessick is the Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Rachel Geissler is a law student at UNC and a research associate at the Prosecutors and Politics Project.