More than 14 months ago, then-Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan unveiled what he called “a pretty simple case” of corruption and bribery involving elected law enforcement officers and the controversial Mariner East pipeline.
In a sweeping criminal complaint, Hogan accused a Sunoco executive and four security contractors of paying 19 state constables more than $230,000 over two years to improperly patrol the pipeline route while wearing their uniforms and carrying firearms to act “as a deterrent” to residents and activists who have opposed it. Hogan’s indictment drew national attention, not only for its targeting of the multimillion-dollar project but for the accusations lobbed against an energy giant.
But a county judge’s ruling this week against the final two defendants in the bribery case signaled it could end with an unexpected outcome: not a single criminal conviction.
Judge Edward Griffin on Tuesday ruled that the remaining defendants, Michael Boffo, 60, and Nikolas McKinnon, 40, could enter an advanced rehabilitative diversion program for first-time offenders. Both had been charged with conspiracy, bribery, and related offenses; those charges will be dismissed once they complete the program.
Two of the three other defendants had their charges dismissed in the last eight months, and a third died before facing a judge.
Chester County District Attorney Deborah Ryan said her office has appealed the dismissal of charges against one defendant, and is still pursuing a related but separate prosecution against two constables allegedly paid by Sunoco to patrol the pipeline.
Ryan, in a statement Thursday, said that her office agreed to admit Boffo and McKinnon into the diversionary program because they had “secondary roles” in the alleged bribery scheme. The pair admitted to their actions, providing statements to investigators and agreeing to testify at trial if needed, Ryan said.
The attorney representing Boffo and McKinnon, Christopher Carusone, said the men were grateful for the opportunity to participate in the diversionary program.
“It’s the right result given their clean records, decorated military service, and minimal involvement in a security operation designed by others in Pennsylvania that they thought was legal,” Carusone said Thursday.
The pipeline, which has drawn widespread scrutiny and sparked dozens of protests, will ultimately carry liquefied natural gas from the Marcellus Shale region in Western Pennsylvania to a terminal in Marcus Hook.
In his 2019 court filing, Hogan asserted that Boffo and McKinnon — executives with TigerSwan LLC, a security consulting firm that works with pipeline companies — illegally hired the constables, who are elected officials paid by the county courts, and obscured their payments from public oversight in a “buy-a-badge scheme.”
“This is a pretty simple case,” Hogan said at the time. “State constables sold their badges and official authority. Energy Transfer [Partners, Sunoco’s parent company] bought those badges and authority, then used them as a weapon to intimidate citizens.” In one case, Hogan said, a journalist recording video along the pipeline route in West Whiteland Township was confronted by a uniform-wearing constable who told him to stop.
Hogan also charged Frank Recknagel, the head of security for Sunoco’s pipeline division, as well as James Murphy, the operator of the security firm Raven Knights, accusing them of orchestrating the scheme to hire the constables and hide payments to them.
But county judges didn’t see the crime. During preliminary hearings in June and January, proceedings that often are routine steps toward trial, two different judges dismissed the charges against Recknagel and Murphy, ruling the District Attorney’s Office had not presented sufficient evidence. (Ryan said her office is appealing the order by Judge Jeffrey R. Sommer dismissing Murphy’s charges.)
The fifth defendant, Raven Knights owner Richard Lester, died in September.
Still outstanding is the case that started it, a prosecution against state constables Kareem Johnson, 47, of Coatesville, and Michael Robel, 58, of Shamokin. The District Attorney’s Office has charged them with official oppression, Pennsylvania Ethics Act violations, and related offenses.
Prosecutors say the two wore clothing and badges identifying themselves as constables while working the private-security job, and failed to report their income from Sunoco on state tax forms. Johnson was allegedly the constable in the West Whiteland incident.
Both have denied any wrongdoing. Their trial is set to begin in March.
Neither Hogan nor his successor ever identified the 17 other constables they alleged also were paid by Sunoco.