Archive for March 23rd, 2015


good ol’ boys

judges hodge and motto

by David Thomas

Jordan Brown is not the only kid in Lawrence County, PA getting a bad deal from juvenile court Judge John Hodge (left) and common pleas court president Judge Dominick Motto (right).

There’s no such thing as the “best interests of the child” in Lawrence County or “Talk to us, we’ll listen” offered up by the state’s department of Children’s and Youth Services.

My now-14-year-old grandson has been at the mercy of an abusive Lawrence County bench for nearly 10 years. The abuses by the court began ten years ago when the case was transferred from Allegheny County to Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas Judge John Hodge. The child’s mother petitioned for this move to get a “home court advantage.”

Her father, the child’s maternal grandfather, is a locally prominent political figure and long-time friend of the then-newly-elected John Hodge. At the very first opportunity, a petition was filed requesting the recusal of Judge Hodge. During that proceeding, Hodge denied more than a superficial knowledge of the maternal grandfather’s existence, stated he didn’t even know that the mother existed (no idea that maternal grandfather had children), and denied accusations that he had provided legal advice to the mother. He did offer that if someone could bring forward something “more substantial,” he might reconsider.

Over the next six years, that friendship (despite the denial) and the political favors that got the maternal grandfather and the judge to their elected positions were leveraged to win petitions for (and bury complaints against) the mother. When Hodge repeatedly left the bench for “medical reasons,” Senior Judge Wheary (a retired Mercer County judge) took over the case and expressed distress over the state of the case and wonderment regarding the orders that had been issued by Hodge. Once back on the bench, Hodge undid orders entered by Judge Wheary, sometimes not even waiting for the pretense of a motion from the mother.

As my grandson got older and began to develop intellectually, he suffered increasing levels of abuse at the hands of the mother. Teachers at his school began to notice the effects and resulting stress-related behaviors. Despite this, his mother blocked access to counseling, and Judge Hodge assisted her by delaying and interfering with counseling for my grandson.

It took a federal lawsuit to get Hodge to recuse himself. Of note, during his federal deposition, Hodge admitted to being a long-time friend of the maternal grandfather (despite his previous denial) and upon direct questioning, stated that it was possible that he “might have given” legal advice to the mother.

Senior Judge Eugene Fike (a retired president judge from Somerset County) was then assigned to the case. He struggled with the case for the next year. Through that time Judge Thomas Piccione, another local politico, repeatedly interfered in the case and even signed several orders benefiting the mother without holding hearings. Despite Piccione’s interference, Judge Fike moved the case forward and began preparations for another custody trial.

By this point, my grandson was begging to be removed from his mother’s care. After finding that Judge Fike was not playing ball, and with the opening of a new custody trial eminent, the mother filed a fraudulent federal suit alleging that the reason she was suddenly having trouble in court was that I was a golfing buddy of Judge Fike—a man I’ve never met and about whom I’d never heard until he was assigned to this case. Judge Fike recused himself from the case, and under threat of prosecution for her false claims, the mother withdrew her fraudulent/frivolous suit.

I should mention that in Pennsylvania, the standard for recusal is that a Judge should recuse himself for anything that might bring about “even the appearance of impropriety” as judged by a “significant minority” of the population. Keep in mind, that if you have a corrupt judge overseeing your case in Pennsylvania, the person who decides if he or she will be recused is the judge in question. More on that later.

It was more than a little predictable that Judge Piccione took over the case, and announced that there were no circumstances under which he would recuse himself. Piccione made this statement just after he announced from the bench that he was a member of mother’s family. According to Piccione, his wife and my grandson’s mother are cousins (as an aside, he pointed out that they are also cousins with the Lawrence County sheriff). Judge Piccione neglected to mention a very special relationship he shares with the mother’s uncle.

Despite the recusal, it became apparent that Judge Hodge was still involved in the case. It wasn’t long after Piccione took over that an additional member of the court’s staff began to appear at proceedings for this case before Piccione. It was eventually learned that this person was Judge Hodge’s Clerk—not a typical or even appropriate circumstance.

As one would sadly expect, the emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse my grandson was suffering at the hands of his mother deteriorated into physical abuse. This culminated in beatings over several days in November of 2012 perpetrated by my grandson’s mother and her father (the maternal grandfather). The Lawrence County DA’s office was not interested in investigating the results of the beating and subsequent ER report from Jameson Memorial Hospital once they realized that the child in question was the grandson of a locally-prominent political figure (maternal grandfather). Lawrence County Children and Youth Services (CYS) stated they wouldn’t get involved and recommended proceeding with a request for a Protection from Abuse order (PFA).

PFA petitions were filed, but Judge Piccione simply ruled that the bruises on my grandson’s arms and the hematoma on the back of his head were just acceptable examples of aggressive parenting, and my grandson was ordered back to his mother’s. The Judge was so desperate to cover his abuses that he lost control of himself, by having my then 12-year-old grandson taken to a jury room where Judge Piccione slammed the table with his hands, and yelled so uncontrollably that spit flew from his mouth as he screamed that he’d put the boy, “in a place where they will feed you, clothe you, keep the rain off of your head, and analyze you to figure out what is broken in you that makes you not do as I order.”

By no coincidence, Piccione repeatedly delayed the custody trial by more than a year as the abuse continued. Pennsylvania law requires that the stability of the child’s living situation be taken into consideration and at this point, at least, it seemed to give the judge some concern as to how he would explain his behavior in light of the fact that a federal lawsuit had been filed involving Piccione—still no recusal.

After about two years of delays, a custody trial was convened. Despite advice to the contrary from a court-appointed psychologist charged with evaluating my grandson and his parents, Piccione ruled that the mother (his wife’s cousin), should have full custody of my grandson citing in his opinion that the relationship between mother and child was badly damaged and that (contrary to the advice of the psychologist) forcing the child into mother’s care would be the way to repair it.

Not surprisingly, his mother’s behavior immediately took a truly heinous turn. After several more weeks of conflict and an ever-spiraling pattern of accelerating abuse, my grandson’s grades plummeted (previously “A” student was now failing his courses) and he began running away from his mother again. Disturbingly, even one member of the local police force offered assistance to the mother by interfering with CYS procedures and arranged to have my grandson placed in juvenile detention over night. Upon realizing the truth of the circumstances, CYS released my grandson to his father but still refused to intervene formally, unofficially citing that Judges Hodge and Motto run CYS in the county and CYS’s hands were tied. Thus the father was again forced (under threat of contempt and possible imprisonment) to attempt to return my grandson to his mother.

None of this fazed the mother. The abuse continued and worsened. By the start of 2014, there was no circumstance under which my grandson would return to his mother’s. The years of abuse had finally and irrevocably taken their toll. After school he would walk away from the bus to the police station, neighbors’ homes, his father’s house, or even sometimes refuse to leave school property. His mother simply continued playing at the same games she had played for years knowing that the court would continue to ignore the best interests of the child in favor of their own interests.

She repeatedly stated that she was not obligated to parent. She wasn’t content to just blame the father for the destruction she had wrought upon her son; she continued to state that she had no responsibility for her son unless he was within the four walls of her house. She refused to collect him from school or parent in any way.

During the last seven months of the 2013-14 school year, my grandson refused to stay with his mother, she refused to parent, and Judge Piccione refused to do anything about it. My son (the boy’s father) had been forced to take a job more than 1½ hours’ drive away and commuted (3 hours round-trip) every weekday to ensure that the child went to school, did his homework, was provided for and had as stable an environment as could be managed. During that time, the mother stated—in court—that she had no idea what the child had been doing in school, how his grades had been progressing; had no idea what he would be doing in school for the next year; and that she would be making no preparations for him to attend school in the fall.

The year progressed with virtually no contact with his mother or maternal grandparents—no phone calls, no birthday cards, not even a Christmas card. However, my grandson’s grades returned to his prior levels of excellence. As he participated in counseling, his outlook on life improved significantly. Mother continued to neglect his existence except for filing motions in court. When his father took him to mother’s house (as directed by the court), she kept the doors locked and would not answer—or in most cases, was not home to receive the child.

The court’s own appointed psychologists opined that the mother’s behavior was typical of one who has decided to punish her child for his rejection of her. Ironically, this would be one of the factors contributing to the destruction of her relationship with her son. When the mother was offered opportunities to attend counseling with her son, she refused. When the child reached out to his mother and suggested they attend joint counseling, she never responded. When the father offered to arrange for mother and son to have lunch to talk, her response could best be described as abusive. Still Judge Piccione did nothing.

By the fall of 2014, the mother had still refused to do anything to even provide the most basic of parenting despite Judge Piccione’s order—and still Piccione refused to act. The father was forced as prescribed by Pennsylvania law to enroll my grandson in the school district (Greensburg, PA) in which he and his son had been residing.

Since relocating and being in a nurturing environment, my grandson has truly excelled. He became a Boy Scout; has begun confirmation classes at church; has garnered many new friends; and is performing at the top of his honors curriculum.

As this was going on and in a matter related to these proceedings, Judge Piccione was again asked to recuse himself by a former Lawrence County District attorney (the mother has filed multiple frivolous lawsuits involving nearly a dozen people). This time, Piccione refused to recuse himself stating that he had no familial relationship to the mother or maternal grandfather. In the fall of 2014, Piccione finally left the bench for medical reasons, having repeatedly and steadfastly refusing to recuse himself.

A window of hope opened as Senior Judge Francis Fornelli (retired president judge, Mercer County) was appointed to take over the proceedings. It was short-lived, however. Judge Fornelli almost immediately scheduled a hearing. Then just three weeks later (two days before the hearing was to commence), recused himself stating that he “might be related by marriage,” to one of the parties in the case. Fornelli never disclosed this possible familial relationship. An interesting standard given that 1) he vaguely may have been related to one of the parties and recused; and 2) Judge Piccione obviously thought that such circumstances were no cause for concern. However, Judge Fornelli was clearly adhering to the standards set forth by the Canons of Judicial Conduct to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

With just two days to the start of the hearing scheduled by Judge Fornelli, Judge Dominick Motto took over. A custody trial was eventually convened and concluded January 9, 2015.

During the custody trial before Motto, two psychologists—one having been appointed by Judge Piccione prior to his leaving the bench, and one having been appointed by Judge Motto (and paid for by the Court) testified the child should be placed in the full custody of the father. Their recommendations were so strong as to state that placing him with the mother would be “psychologically disastrous” for the child, and that taking him away from his father would destroy his “pure psychological survival.” (Not dissimilar to conclusions from previous recommendations).

Each opined that the mother needed counseling and even went so far as to recommend she undergo anger management counseling. I am particularly disturbed by the tortured way that Motto has attempted to create a false record by re-imaging the testimony and presenting it as fact in his opinion attached to the custody order.

According to the transcript of the trial: “In November of 2012, the Sunday after Thanksgiving he told his mother that he wanted to live with his dad. Mother became angry and started yelling at him and called her dad to come down. (Name deleted) saw his grandfather’s car pulling into the driveway so he ran up to his room to hide and closed the door and pushed himself against the door. His grandfather came up the stairs, kicked open the door, and tackled him to the ground. He (sic) grandfather then sat on him, held his arms down and kept slamming his head off the ground probably three or four times. Mother came into the room and sat down to watch. (Name deleted) started screaming for help.”

In his 106-page custody order and opinion, Motto sanitized this outrageous scene as follows: “When Maternal Grandfather arrived at the residence, (Name deleted) barricaded himself in his bedroom against his door. Maternal Grandfather had to force his way into (Name deleted)’s bedroom causing (Name deleted) to be pushed across the floor. (Name deleted) then threw himself on the ground, thrashing his arms and legs and slamming his head on the ground. Mother and Maternal Grandfather physically restrained (Name deleted) by holding down his arms and legs until he regained control of himself.”

Of significant interest, the mother and maternal grandfather have now testified about these events on several different occasions. The mother has offered two different versions of the events, and the maternal grandfather has now offered no less than three versions of the events. In the version told during the PFA proceedings, they claimed that the mother could not have caused the bruising on my grandson’s arms captured in photos presented to the court because she was standing outside the room while the maternal grandfather restrained his grandson. In later versions, they changed their story to say that she was in the room and holding his arms while the maternal grandfather held the child’s feet. In contrast, my grandson’s statements on the matter have never varied.

Without rational foundation, Judge Motto disregarded the child’s testimony as well as the the testimony of the two psychologists, as well as their recommendations (and the fact that the 2015 testimony matched up with psychologist observations and recommendations from the 2013 custody trial). He went on to ignore inconsistencies and contradictions in the testimony of the mother and maternal grandparents. He went on to fabricate his own versions of the testimony in an attempt to create a false record. In the end, he ruled the boy must be returned to his mother’s custody. He went on demand that this child be pulled out of his current school, severed from his friends and support system, and returned to Neshannock Township schools with just one quarter left in the school year.

A request for a stay to Judge Motto’s order until an appeal to Pennsylvania Superior Court could be heard was denied by Motto.

The father’s attorneys filed an appeal to the Superior Court on March 17 requesting a stay to Judge Motto’s custody order. After business hours on March 20, they learned that the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a 10-day stay to Motto’s order to provide rebuttal time for the mother’s attorney to respond to the stay.

The “good old boy’s network” is alive and well in Lawrence County PA. I am aware of several other custody cases in Lawrence County having a curious twist to them regarding “friends of the court.” In one such case, Judge Hodge was presented with evidence that the mother of two children involved in a custody matter (and a known crack addict, and daughter of a local politico) had taken her two children to one of her drug buys. Hodge simply responded, “What do you want me to do about it?” and declined to alter the mother’s custody. In another custody case, Judge Piccione somewhat predictably awarded custody to the court administrator’s daughter—impudently entering the courtroom while reassuringly patting the court administrator’s shoulder.

One last thing…all the while, the maternal grandfather has told the child “you will never live with your father, I have this all worked out so that it won’t happen.”

So how does this happen? How does a 14-year-old boy find himself fighting for his survival against a system that states that his best interests are primacy? The Pennsylvania Judiciary is hopelessly corrupt. Not just corrupt in the “take a bribe” sense, but also in the sense that it has been perverted from its original purpose. The Lucerne County “Kids for Cash” travesty; the indictment of multiple Philadelphia judges for “fixing” citations; the recent “punishment” of a Pennsylvania common pleas court judge for ordering transcripts to be altered to support her orders and opinions (not unlike Judge Motto’s behavior in this matter) all speak to the damage and corruption at the lower court level.

At the other end of the spectrum, lies the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is supposed to have seven Supreme Court Justices. At present, they are down to five because two of them have been removed on charges of corruption (one has been incarcerated). The remainder are preoccupied as they desperately try to redirect the spotlight of corruption to their remaining “colleagues.”

In the middle are the members of the Pennsylvania Superior Court who (as elected officials) have the same needs to cover for their comrades and support the system which has granted them the opulent and powerful lifestyle they so jealously covet.

You might ask: “What about judicial oversight?” Pennsylvania has two systems for overseeing the behavior of Judges. The first is the Supreme Court. Given their recent track record, I think we can skip that discussion. The second is the Judicial Conduct Board. We can keep this discussion short by pointing out that the Judicial Conduct Board is the same group that assured all parties that the judges in the Lucerne County debacle had behaved appropriately. To my knowledge they have not changed their opinion in the matter, despite the lead judge eventually being sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

Lord Acton has been paraphrased as having said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not sure this explains Lawrence County. It’s not power, but rather impunity that has underwritten the behavior of the Lawrence County judges. People don’t break the speed limit because they feel powerful. They do it because they believe that they won’t get caught, and if they do get caught, the penalty will be of little consequence. These judges are lawyers who have become local politicians.

In the words of Federal Judge Joy Flowers Conti, even if a judge is party to a conspiracy, he/she is immune from prosecution. Let that sink in as you consider that once they become judges, they are granted absolute immunity from prosecution. What person, in their right mind, would grant “absolute immunity” to a lawyer-turned-politician?

Unfortunately, Judges Motto, Piccione, and Hodge have been permitted to subvert any rational outcome in favor of personal politics—and if left to its own devices, it is unlikely that the Pennsylvania judicial system will hold them accountable for it. The one thing they may have to fear is federal intervention. And while the federal system is loathe stepping in and getting involved in “states rights” issues, Judges Motto, Piccione and Hodge are still highly motivated to keep this boy and his father from testifying against them in federal proceedings.

Incidentally, Judges Hodge and Piccione have used and continue to use tax payer funds to pay their legal defense—even in the matter naming Judge Hodge as an individual.

After all the above, the real travesty here is that the young man in this story (just 14-years-old) is the one who cannot achieve a just result.

What I want is for my grandson to be safe and not have to deal with the daily fear experienced by every victim of abuse. The only way that can happen for him is if he is removed from his mother’s custody.


Dave Thomas is a retired electric utility operations manager, has been married for over 50 years to a woman who has served as a church secretary for over two decades. They presently live in Florida after living in same Pennsylvania community for 33 years. He is a former member of the Rotary International, Chamber of Commerce, and various state and national professional organizations.


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 PS: The PA Superior Court has lifted their temporary stay, and has ordered the child removed from school and taken back to his abusive maternal family by 5:00 pm Friday, April 3.