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A Chester County jury is being asked to decide if two state constables broke the law patrolling controversial pipeline project

Kareem Johnson and Michael Robel are accused of abusing their authority by acting as private security for Energy Transfer Partners. Defense lawyers assert the men did nothing wrong.

Pipes for Energy Transfer Partner’s Mariner East Pipeline project await installation at the border of West Whiteland and Uwchlan townships near Exton in 2018.
Pipes for Energy Transfer Partner’s Mariner East Pipeline project await installation at the border of West Whiteland and Uwchlan townships near Exton in 2018.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Did two state constables break the law by drawing paychecks from Energy Transfer Partners for patrolling the company’s embattled Mariner East Pipeline? Or were they simply enjoying one of the perks of their elected positions by working a private security gig in their off-hours?

Those were the dueling narratives presented Monday as a a Chester County jury began hearing the matter.

Prosecutors, led by Assistant District Attorney Myles Matteson, say Kareem Johnson, 49, and Michael Robel, 59, abused their authority as constables by working for Energy Transfer Partners in 2018 and 2019 at a site in West Whiteland Township. The pair, Matteson said, displayed their guns and badges while patrolling the pipeline and pressured two journalists and a county detective to identify themselves and leave the public street where they parked.

The two have been charged with bribery, official oppression, and violating the state’s Ethics Act by failing to report their income made from Energy Transfer— almost $28,000 for Robel and about $37,000 for Johnson.

“We want our elected officials to be ethical, to work for the people who elected them,” Matteson said. “Not line their pockets with a company’s money.”

But Casey White, Johnson’s lawyer, told jurors Monday that Matteson and his colleagues “were shoving a narrative down [their] throats” that misstated the facts of the case.

“Constables are allowed to do what these two men did,” White said. “They’re allowed to do private security work, period.”

Under state law, constables are either elected or appointed by a judge. Their primary function is to serve court papers and guard polling places on Election Day but are able to work private security jobs.

Prosecutors allege that what Robel and Johnson did was illegal because they used their authority as constables to create a “show of force” to limit negative publicity or attention into the pipeline, which has garnered almost constant criticism from residents and activists.

The prosecution against Johnson and Robel is the final vestige in a sweeping, criminal investigation into Sunoco’s Mariner East Pipeline that was started by former Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan over the controversial pipeline’s security.

The pipeline, which originates in Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region, will carry pressurized natural gas vapors to a refinery in Marcus Hook.

In late 2019, Hogan filed criminal charges against the head of Sunoco’s pipeline security division, as well as the operators and high-ranking members of two private security firms, Raven Knights and TigerSwan LLC. Hogan alleged a massive conspiracy to hire 19 constables to patrol the pipeline and deter bystanders. Hogan, in his court filing, called the plan an illegal “buy-a-badge scheme.”

Almost two years later, none of the five defendants have been convicted: Charges were dropped against two of them, one died, and two others entered an accelerated rehabilitation program for first-time offenders that will see the charges dismissed. Those two, Nikolas McKinnon and Michael Boffo, are cooperating witnesses expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution, according to Matteson.

The trial, before Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Sommer, is expected to last most of the week.