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Judge to rule on removing candidate from primary ballot

March 22, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

HARRISBURG, Pa. - A senior Commonwealth Court judge has yet to decide whether Ronald E. Eberly's name will be printed on May 16 primary ballots, but the attorney for the man challenging Eberly's nominating petition said he is "reasonably optimistic he's going to rule in our favor" and remove Eberly's name.

Judge James Flaherty on Tuesday granted a motion to strike five of the 13 pages of Eberly's nominating petition in his run for the 90th District seat to the state House of Representatives. Flaherty also discarded about 38 individual signatures, some of which appeared on the five pages later stricken altogether.

Eberly, who had 349 signatures on his petition, must retain 300 valid ones as required by state election statutes.

John E. Pace Sr. of Chambersburg, Pa., challenged Eberly's nominating petition on a number of contentions, including that electors listed the wrong political district or were not registered, information was "altered by another hand" and Eberly signed an affidavit saying he circulated the petitions when Pace alleged that someone else did.

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If Eberly's name does not appear on ballots, the field would narrow from three to two Republicans - Todd Rock of Mont Alto, Pa., and incumbent Patrick E. Fleagle.

Eberly did not attend Tuesday's hearing and had no counsel present.

He contended in a telephone interview Tuesday night that he had not been properly served notice of the hearing.

A Fayetteville, Pa., man testified during the hearing that, on March 15, he served Eberly with documents saying his petition had been challenged and a court date had been set.

"He refused to accept service," John Pilla said.

Pilla testified he served Eberly the papers at Eberly's real estate office and described Eberly as "rather recalcitrant" about the matter. Pilla said he removed the documents from an envelope to give them to Eberly.

"I then set the documents down on his toes. He did not kick them off. I didn't know what else to do, your honor," Pilla said.

"He laid it on my feet and stormed out the door," Eberly said.

Eberly said he was given an envelope addressed to Pace and never opened it to read the documents inside. He also said he contacted the law office listed as the return address.

"I said I'm not in the business of opening other people's mail," Eberly said. "You don't go to a hearing unless you've been serviced."

At the end of the hearing, Flaherty looked at the empty table where Eberly or his counsel would have been seated and asked if anyone had objection to hearsay testimony that had been presented.

"I guess it's admitted," Flaherty said with a shrug.

Flaherty is expected to make his ruling soon, so either party is given a chance to appeal.

"They do have some time constraints that are mentioned in the election law," said Rob Bleecher, Pace's attorney from Pecht & Associates of Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Eberly said he has not contacted an attorney about the issue and does not know whether he will appeal if his name is taken off the ballot.

There are nearly 80 cases similar to Eberly's being heard in Commonwealth Court this month, according to The Associated Press.

Bleecher made the motion to strike pages 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 of Eberly's nominating petition based on testimony from Pilla and Pace. They testified that during conversations with at least one person found on each of those five pages, the electors said the petition was provided to them by someone other than Eberly.

Eberly's signature then appeared on affidavits as the circulator of those pages.

"I only had five people, other than myself, circulating petitions," Eberly said.

Pace, who described himself as a "politically active" person when asked why he filed the challenge, testified he talked to Lisa Wenger, whose name appears on page 10 of the petition as Liza Wenger with a matching home address.

"I went to her house to meet with her," Pace said, testifying the woman "puzzled over" the nominating petition.

"She said, 'I didn't sign that,'" said Pace, who is a registered Republican.

He said she called her husband, whose signature appeared on line 5 of the same page. The woman told Pace her husband did not sign the petition either, according to Pace's testimony.

Eberly said he believes the people visiting the electors' houses distressed and harassed them while encouraging some to sign affidavits about falsities on the nominating petition.

"He (Pilla) told all these people he was my friend," Eberly said.

Those people will hesitate to get involved with politics or sign a nominating petition in the future, Eberly said.

Eberly feels the matter has created "a sad day in politics in the district" when candidates and their supporters turn to fighting and "tactics" such as those employed by the people involved in this matter.

Regarding the role of a nominating petition, he said, "It's not such a big deal. You're just giving (a candidate) the opportunity to have his name on the ballot."

"All I wanted was the opportunity to discuss the issues," Eberly said.

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