Monday, October 26, 2020

Chester DA charges Energy Transfer officials for bribery over pipeline security


Bribery and conspiracy charges have been filed against an Energy Transfer official and four security employees involved in an elaborate scheme to “intimidate citizens” over the Mariner East pipeline, according to the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

“This is a pretty simple case,” Chester County DA Tom Hogan said in a statement. “State constables sold their badges and official authority. Energy Transfer bought those badges and authority, then used them as a weapon to intimidate citizens. [The] defendants attempted to conceal their activity through a maze of companies and payments.”

Those defendants include Frank Recknagel, security manager for natural gas company Energy Transfer; Nikolas McKinnon and Michael Boffo of security firm TigerSwan LLC; and James Murphy and Richard Lester of security company Raven Knights LLC.

According to the Chester County DA’s office, Energy Transfer “decided” it needed security for the pipeline, which carries natural gas from Western Pennsylvania to Delaware County, and recruited Pennsylvania constables to act as private security for the pipeline.

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Pennsylvania constables are elected and authorized to serve arrest warrants, transport criminal defendants for court purposes, serve as courtroom security and preserve the peace at polling places.

They are not, however, authorized to act as private security, which is what the DA’s office accused both constables of doing in exchange for thousands of dollars as subcontractors for a Harrisburg-based Raven Knights.

The constables were arrested earlier this year for misusing their elected positions to work as “hired guns” for Energy Transfer. Michael Robel, 58, and Kareem Johnson, 47, were charged with official oppression, violating the Ethics Act and related offenses, according to the DA’s office.

Energy Transfer disputed the district attorney’s claims in an emailed statement, saying the company believes “these charges do not have any merit.”

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“The Pennsylvania constables in question were hired by an independent, Pennsylvania-based security firm to support the West Whiteland Police Department in its efforts to maintain peace within the community,” the statement read in part. “Local law enforcement never expressed any objection to this security plan when it was discussed and implemented.”

But Hogan accused Energy Transfer employee Recknagel of attempting to “off-shore the hiring and payment” of the constables. He allegedly used Raven Knights and TigerSwan to coordinate the constables’ role as private security guards for the pipeline and funneled the constables’ payments through the two security companies.

Raven Knights security firm allegedly paid Robel $27,995 from 2018 to 2019 to work as private security for the pipeline, according to the DA’s office. Johnson was paid $36,785. Both failed to report the additional income on their 2018 Statement of Financial Interests form, which is required by the Pennsylvania Ethics Act.

The Chester County DA’s office first became aware of Robel and Johnson after opening a criminal investigation in December 2018 into the Mariner East Pipeline, which runs through portions of the county.

Shortly after launching the investigation, the DA’s office started hearing rumors that hired guards were protecting the pipeline near Lisa Drive.

Robel allegedly flashed his badge to a local detective in January 2019 when the investigator responded to residents’ complaints of a sinkhole, according to Hogan’s office.

Johnson allegedly interacted with a reporter in June 2018. At the time of the encounter, Johnson was wearing a hard hat, construction vest and displayed a badge with a state seal, according to the DA’s office.

Both Robel and Johnson turned themselves into authorities Thursday morning and were arraigned. They are both expected to appear back in court later this month.


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