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The prosecution of a brutal double murder and an ongoing pandemic have made the first several months in office for Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf interesting, to say the least.
Graf, who has served as Lebanon County’s top prosecutor since Jan. 30, is now asking local voters to give her a full term in the position.
“I’ve spent the last decade of my life as a prosecutor in the courtroom, fighting for justice for victims and punishing criminals who prey upon the vulnerable and the innocent,” she said in a statement announcing her bid for re-election on Nov. 30. “I humbly ask for the voters’ support so I may continue my service.”
Her announcement came with a number of endorsements from high-profile Republican officials.
In an interview with LebTown, Graf said the job since taking office earlier this year “has been very fast-paced and changing – but that has more to do with COVID than anything else.”
Graf was one of several Lebanon County GOP officials who openly challenged Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency orders this spring, culminating in the county’s preemptive “go-yellow” resolution, which Gov. Wolf later used as the basis to withhold federal CARES Act funding until a lawsuit settlement in August resolved the issue. Graf was also a vocal support of the Palmyra restaurant Taste of Sicily, which opened its dining room despite the state’s orders at the time against indoor dining.
It’s been a challenge, she said, figuring out how to keep the office open and “how to keep justice moving” at a time when many offices are closed and social-distancing requirements have altered the landscape of the courtroom.
“It was really the resilience of my staff, their hard work and dedication, that showed that we are not only capable of surviving, but thriving in difficult times,” Graf said.
It’s hard to hold trials and hearings when it’s necessary to keep defendants, witnesses, jurors and courthouse staff separated, she said.
“But you’re not doing a service to the community, the victims or even the defendants” by allowing a backlog of cases to build, Graf said. When court reopened in June, she said, she was impressed “with how well the staff maintained continuity” in processing cases.
In fact, she said, among her proudest accomplishments to date is her successful prosecution of Gilberto Torres Reyes, who was convicted on June 26 on two counts of first-degree murder and several other charges after a week-long trial.
It was one of the first – if not the first – major trial in Pennsylvania after courts shut down because of COVID-19 in March. Despite precautions to keep everyone safe during court proceedings, Graf was lead prosecutor in the trial that found Reyes guilty of shooting two victims to death after robbing a bank in Berks County on April 9, 2018.
“We put forth such a solid, professional presentation in that case,” she said. “We did it. From my perspective, we did it flawlessly.”
Graf said in February she hoped to initiate more community outreach programs to local schools and organizations, and to encourage the formation of a court focusing solely on cases of drug use, theft to support drug habits, and drug-related violence, similar to the county’s existing DUI treatment and veterans courts.
Discussions are ongoing, she said, but the initiatives require collaboration between her office, the courts and various county agencies – all of which has been hard to coordinate during the pandemic.
“The ideas are more fleshed out, but in terms of an effective start date, we’re not there yet,” she said. “It’s still a goal, but right now people are so focused on maintaining what they’re currently doing, in light of COVID, that adding one more layer of newness and stress – I don’t know that this is the best time for that.”
Otherwise, she said, “it is really my hope to do things in the same manner that we have always done them … although we are always trying to do things more efficiently and better.”
A lifelong Lebanon County resident, Graf said her family has been here for five generations.
“Every day we get to go to work and help people. That’s amazing. In and of itself, that’s awesome,” she said. “It’s so meaningful to know that I can use my job to help the people that I grew up with and have known for so long. It gives public service an added depth.”
‘A no-nonsense prosecutor’
Republican officials in Lebanon County offered enthusiastic support of her bid for re-election.
“Pier Hess Graf is a no-nonsense prosecutor who cuts to the chase and doesn’t suffer fools,” state Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102) said. “When it comes to dealing with crime in our community, I trust her instincts. She’s committed to bringing the bad guys to justice while protecting the liberties of law-abiding citizens. I’m honored she’s asked for my support, and am pleased to offer it.”
State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101st) said he has “been extremely impressed with how thorough and thoughtful District Attorney Pier Hess Graf has been in the exercise of her duties since taking office. It’s been interesting to see the advice and counsel she has provided on legislative changes that might be required to laws that impact all citizens in Pennsylvania.”
State Senator Dave Arnold (R-48), who preceded Graf as district attorney, also offered a hearty endorsement.
“Pier Hess’s experience, record of service and passion for service is unmatched,” Arnold said. “That is why I selected her to be my first Deputy District Attorney. I could not be more proud to support her re-election for District Attorney.”
Additional endorsements come from Congressman Dan Meuser, state Rep. Sue Helm and County Commissioner Bob Phillips.
Graf took over as district attorney on Jan. 31, replacing Arnold after he won a special Jan. 14 election to fill a vacancy in the state Senate.
Graf received her bachelor’s degree from Temple University and graduated cum laude from Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. She was hired by Arnold in 2009 to join his team of prosecutors.
According to a statement from her office, during her 11-year career as a local prosecutor Graf took 101 defendants to trial and has won 84 percent of her trials and secured guilty verdicts in every homicide case.
The district attorney’s office in Lebanon County employs more than 30 people and prosecutes more than 2,000 adult and 400 juvenile criminal cases each year. The office also administers more than 15 criminal justice programs covering specialized prosecutions, diversionary programs, specialized investigations and victim assistance programs.
Lebanon County Republican Committee chairman Ed Lynch noted in an email Wednesday that the committee “cannot endorse any candidate for elected public office” until the conditions set forth in the committee bylaws have been fulfilled.
“To date, the Lebanon County Republican Committee has not received a formal notification from any candidate requesting the endorsement of the LCRC,” Lynch said.
However, he added, Graf “and all Republican candidates for elected public office will be provided the opportunity to secure the endorsement of the Lebanon GOP in the 2021 primary election cycle.”
Currently, he said, “I am not aware of any other individual who has indicated their intention of seeking the Office of the Lebanon County District Attorney.”
Dan Sidelnick, chairman of the Lebanon County Democratic Committee, said he doesn’t know if a Democrat will make a grab for the seat. However, he said he expects at least a few Republican candidates to challenge Graf’s bid for re-election.
Graf said no one to date “has come out and said anything” about vying for the seat.
“I don’t spend my time worrying about a hypothetical,” she said. “If somebody comes out, we’ll deal with it at that point.”
Graf began her career as a clerk for Judge Samuel A. Kline. She opened the Hess Law Firm P.C. in 2014, representing clients in areas such as business contracts, divorce, custody, child support, wills and estates. However, state law prohibits a district attorney from owning or operating a private firm, so she had to close up shop before she was sworn in.
She lives in Lebanon with her husband, Chris, a 13-year police veteran, and she is an outspoken advocate of efforts to “back the blue.”
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