WEST WHITELAND PA Aug 10 2019 — Two state constables — one who once served as a city councilman in Coatesville — were arrested Thursday and charged with improperly using their official positions while working as private security guards along the controversial Mariner East Pipeline project.
The arrests come a day after the Chester County District Attorney’s Office announced that it would begin a criminal investigation into a “backfire” explosion at a pipeline facility in West Goshen on Monday, and several months after District Attorney Tom Hogan accused the Sunoco Pipeline company for using what he called “hired muscle … to intimidate our citizens.”
The DA’s Chief of Staff, Charles Gaza, who announced the arrests in a press release, said that the county, “cannot have law enforcement hiring themselves out and using their public positions for personal profit. It undermines the integrity and independence of our law enforcement and government.”
Chester County Detective Ben Martin filed criminal complaints against constables Kareem Johnson and Michael Robel for their work as guards along the pipeline in West Whiteland, allegedly using their official badges and positions as state officials in doing so.
The complaint also said the two men did not report thousands of dollars in income they were paid by the private security firm that hired them as they are required to do under state ethics laws.
Lisa Coleman, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Inc., a partner of Sunoco Pipelines in the construction of the Mariner East project, issued the following statement about the men’s arrest Thursday:
“Constables Johnson and Robel were not Sunoco or Energy Transfer employees,” Coleman wrote. “They were employed by Raven Knights, who provided security services and personnel.
“We have a code of conduct for all of contractors and third party vendors that clearly states what are acceptable behaviors and business practices, and we expect our contractors and their employees to adhere to that,” she added. “Beyond that I will decline to comment.”
The pair were arraigned separately by Magisterial District Judge John Bailey of West Whiteland on charges of bribery in official matters, a third-degree felony; official oppression, a second-degree misdemeanor; and violations of the state’s Ethics Standards and Financial Disclosure statute, including conflict of interest, accepting improper influence, and failure to file notice of financial interest — all ungraded felonies.
Both turned themselves in voluntarily at the arraignment, and were released on $25,000 unsecured bail pending Aug. 29 preliminary hearings. They were processed and fingerprinted at the county Justice Center after the arraignments.
Johnson, 47, of Coatesville was unrepresented by an attorney, and declined to comment on the charges against him.
Robel, 58, of Shamokin, Northumberland County, was represented by defense attorney Perry DeMarco Jr. of Philadelphia, who told a reporter that his client appeared to have been unfortunately caught up in the middle of a political dispute between Hogan and Sunoco. Hogan announced that he was opening a criminal investigation using the county’s Investigative Grand Jury into the pipeline project in December 2018 when he was gearing up for a run for a third term as the county’s top prosecutor. He has since withdrawn his name from the ballot, citing family issues.
“Today is the first time we have had a chance to see these charges,” said DeMarco at the District Court in Exton following Robel’s arraignment. “At first glance, it seems the government is overreaching, to say the least. We look forward to vigorously defending against these charges.”
Neither Robel nor Johnson have any criminal history, according to court records.
According to the arrest affidavit included in Martin’s criminal complaint, Martin began looking into the use of state constables as security guards along the pipeline construction area, which runs from Elverson southeast through the county to Westtown as it makes its way to extraction terminals owned by Sunoco in Marcus Hook, Delaware County.
He said that on Jan. 2, he interviewed a resident of Lisa Drive in West Whiteland, where a large sinkhole would soon develop. The man told him that Sunoco held an easement across his property for Mariner East construction, and that he had seen people on his property who were armed. When he asked a subcontractor about who they were, he said he was told they were state constables.
Later, at a Jan. 4 meeting with state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th, of West Whiteland, a leading opponent of the pipeline project, Martin said he was told of other reports of people working as security along the project who carried firearms and identified themselves as constables.
As Martin described in his affidavit, state constables are elected officials who wok for the court system in the state. They serve subpoenas, transport prisoners to court proceedings, serve as courtroom security, and have the power to make arrests in limited circumstances, such as violations of a municipal ordinance. They are paid for by the court system with taxpayer funds, and as elected officials are required to file statements of financial interests, including any source of income of over $1,300.
Martin said that on Jan. 20, he had gone to Lisa Drive to observe the sinkhole problems as it had developed. While parked there, he was approached by a man who identified himself as State Constable Mike Robel. The constable told him he would have to move his car down the street as he could not park there. Martin said Robel wore a firearm on his belt, and displayed his state constable badge.
Robel allegedly told Martin he was employed by Sunoco and was a constable from Northumberland. Later, when Martin spoke with him again, Robel said he was employed by a subcontractor for Sunoco and not by the court system. He said Sunoco “wanted certified constables in uniforms as private security for the project.”
The detective then started following up on other reports of contacts made with people identifying themselves as constables to West Whiteland police officers. Those included incidents on March 5 and March 24 in which officers met with Johnson, who told them he was working for Sunoco.
He also interviewed a freelance journalist, Daniel Zegart, who writes for an environmental blog, desmog.com. Martin said Zegart said he was parked on Lisa Drive working on a story when he had a conversation with a person wearing hard hat and construction vest with a badge and shirt that appeared to have an official state seal on it. The person, who Zegart filmed with his phone camera, was later identified as Johnson.
In an interview with another constable who was hired as a security guard on several occasions, Martin learned that the men were hired by a private firm called Raven Knights in Harrisburg. He was referred to the firm by Johnson, and said that he had seen Robel wearing his constable uniform while working as security. The constable, Mike Norris of West Pikeland, said that when he worked he did not identify himself as a constable or carry a badge.
When Martin reviewed financial records from Raven Knights, he said he learned that Johnson had been paid $36,785 in 2018 by the company to work as private security in the county. In addition, Robel had been paid $27,995 in 2018 and 2019 as a private security employee. Neither man included that income on their State of Financial Interest form for 2018.
When Hogan first announced that his office had encountered a person claiming to be a constable working as private security, Coleman said that security guards had been sent to protect residents of the area from intrusion.
“We have engaged security on Lisa Drive at the request of the impacted homeowners to restrict access to their property as they were concerned not only with protecting their privacy, but the possibility of people trespassing on their property,” she wrote. “I will decline to discuss any further details of our security efforts, beyond that we do use security on our projects as needed to ensure the safety of our employees, our assets and those who live in the area.”
Johnson, a lifetime resident of Coatesville, was elected to City Council in 2005 and served as vice president of that body. He served until 2009, when he was elected constable.
The case has been assigned to Assistant District Attorneys Alex Gosfield, Myles Matteson, and Seth Weber.