The district attorney is the chief elected law enforcement official in Northampton County.
Tonight, LehighValleyNews.com presents a debate between the two candidates currently competing for the job next term.
Incumbent District attorney Terry Houck and his challenger, retired Judge Steven Baratta.
Here's co-moderator Jen Rehill.
Hello and thank you for joining us.
LehighValleyNews.com is proud to present this debate with PBS 39 and 91.3 WLVR, all part of Lehigh Valley Public Media.
The district attorney's office wields great power and has broad discretion over how the law is enforced.
Tonight, we'll hear from two candidates on the ballot for the May primary election.
I'm Jen Rehill, news director at LehighValleyNews.com.
As we have in the past, I'll be moderating the debate with my colleague, politics reporter Tom Shortell.
We are coming to you live from the Univest Public Media Center in Bethlehem.
We'd like to welcome our studio audience in addition to those viewing on PBS 39 and those following along on the livestream on LehighValleyNews.com.
We are also simulcasting on the radio at 91.3 WLVR.
Now let's meet the candidates.
Terry Houck is the incumbent district attorney.
He was elected in 2019, and will complete his first term in office this year.
Before being elected, he served 13 years as the county's first assistant district attorney.
He lives in Forks Township.
Steven Baratta is a retired Northampton County judge who spent 25 years on the bench.
He says he retired to run for D.A..
He also served five years as the county's first assistant district attorney in the 1990s.
He is a resident of Bethlehem.
Now we are about to get to it, but first a note.
Both Mr. Houck and Mr. Baratta are Democrats running in the Democratic primary.
We're holding this debate now because no Republicans have filed to compete for the office.
That means the winner of the Democratic contest is all but assured of the seat barring a Republican write in candidate Mr. Baratta, before the debate, We determined the order.
You have 90 seconds.
Please lead us off with your opening statement.
I want to thank PBS 39 for hosting this debate.
I am running against an incumbent, so it's my obligation to explain why.
Three years ago, Mr. Houck was handed a turnkey operation from John Morganelli.
The office is now in disarray.
13 aides have fled his office.
The majority have been women.
The staff has complained of mistreatment.
There is an EEOC complaint of racial discrimination filed against his office.
His trial conviction rate is unacceptable.
18 jury trials in 2021 nine were not guilty verdicts.
11 not guilty verdicts in 2022.
During his reign, he has lost murder cases, attempted murder cases in aggravated assault cases, in double figures while his office implodes.
He and his first assistant improperly make outside money from the practice of law.
If elected, I will implement an ethical code for the office prohibiting the private practice of law, conflicts of interest and favoritism.
I will recruit a diverse professional staff, and I will implement effective policies to combat violent crimes and those dealing opioids.
No pleas for drug dealers and gun violence.
I will expand our problem solving courts for low level offenders struggling with addiction and mental illness.
And I'm against cash bail for nonviolent offenders.
I support should not face pretrial detention.
I will respect Governor Shapiro's moratorium for the death penalty, and I will oppose the criminalization of abortion.
Hopefully, I will get a chance to address my platform during this debate, and you will have the opportunity to measure both of us.
Mr. Houck, you have 90 seconds for your opening statement.
Now for the truth.
In 1977, I began my career as a Philadelphia Police officer, and I spent nine years where I was commended over eight times, including Commendation for Bravery and the Chaplain for Chaplains Award for bravery.
I worked my way through through my bachelor's degree, a master's degree and law degree, all while working at night, going paycheck to paycheck, working shift work.
In 1986, I became a full time district attorney in Bucks County, where I spent 14 years rising from Ada to chief deputy district attorney, where I was chief of the Child Abuse and Sex Offense unit for over a decade.
In 2001, I came to the Lehigh Valley, where I've been ever since four years in Lehigh County and in other and since in 26, I received a call from John Morganelli asking me to be his first full time first assistant district attorney, the first one in County's history.
I bring a unique experience, this job, for a couple of the things that I've done since since we've been in office.
I established the first full time drug task force eradicating it meant to eradicate all drug dealing and fentanyl from our streets.
I've also sued the opioid companies, two manufacturing companies, Wealth and Big Pharma, for over $2.1 million.
First time in history that that's been done.
I've also has a major crime task force, a child predator task force that I instituted, and our crimes coming into this district attorney's office have dropped by 20% in the three years I've been D.A.
compared to the three years prior to my day.
And I have a 90% conviction rate.
Thank you, Mr. Houck, in this first round of questions.
Each candidate will answer specific questions to them.
There are no rebuttals in this period of the debate, so please keep your answer to one minute.
Tom, why don't you start us off?
Thank you, Jen.
Mr. Houck, Mr. Baratta alluded to this earlier.
Your top lieutenant has a private practice side job and rents his office space from a prominent defense attorney.
Should your number one assistant be fully committed to the people of Northampton County?
And why do you allow this arrangement?
Well, the Thank you.
My first assistant is is one of the hardest workers I have.
He's been a 50 year employee in the district attorney's office, and he has a stellar record and never had a single complaint against him.
What he does with in his own personal time, I have no issue with when I was in Bucks County, it was not only encouraged, it was they actually sought you out to to work in private practice.
It it follows that you will stay if that happens.
He's one of the best prosecutors I have and a 50 hour work week is nothing for him.
When Mr. Baratta a first came out against him, he stated that he was the first assistant was in the unauthorized practice, a law that that turned out to be false.
And he recanted.
Then he said he represented a criminal defendant.
That turned out to be false and he recanted.
Then he said there was an actual law against people having second jobs in their own personal time.
That turned out to be false.
So everything that was stated about my first assistant is absolutely false.
He has inside practice he conducted on his own, and I have no issue with him or anybody else in my staff doing that.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, you've attacked your your opponent in this campaign, accusing him of incompetence and even malfeasance just a few months ago.
However, you were a judge sitting on the bench whose job it was, was to be fair and stay above the fray.
Is your conduct becoming a distinguished officer of the court?
Well, the reason why I stepped down from the bench is to address these issues.
I saw them and I was appalled by it.
So I stepped down from the bench to step up to run for district attorney because no one was confronting Mr. Houck.
I haven't rescinded any of mine, any of my statement.
What Mr. Pepper does is unethical.
He shared a client with his landlord, defense attorney.
He negotiates pleas.
And this defense attorney gets favorable deals.
It's like the trifecta of corruption in that office.
This district, this defense counsel held two fundraisers for Mr. Houck.
Is my primary fundraiser, and yet he's allowed to negotiate deals with Mr. Houck and Mr. Pepper that other DA's or other defense counsel are not allowed to do.
So just a question becoming of the office that that was the question whether attacking.
It's becoming of a candidate for this office.
To point out what the flaws are and the reasons why I'm running.
I couldn't do that as a as a judge.
That's why I stepped down.
All right, let's move on, Tom.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
You presided over hundreds of criminal cases during Mr. Houck’s tenure as district attorney.
If his office was was carrying justice, as is carrying justice, as you suggest, why didn't you do something about it from the bench?
Well, first of all, when I was a judge, I really wasn't privy to what was going on privately.
I actually got information about two months before I stepped down from the bench about the relationship between Mr. Pepper and his landlord, defense counsel, and the fact that he was running a robust private practice, appearing in counties including Lehigh, Monroe and sometimes Northampton during the days he had never appeared before me during the day.
So I didn't know that he was doing that.
As soon as I found out about it and I began to look into what was going on, I was appalled.
And as a result, I decided to step down, to run.
So this malfeasance is not appropriate for the person who's supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer in our county.
There are ethical duties both in that office and as an attorney that is failing to me.
And we'll speak about that hopefully later.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
Mr. Houck, the next question is for you.
You've said on the campaign trail that crime is dropped in Northampton County between 20 and 25%, but that's not what the state crime database shows.
In fact, it says crime is down 10 to 11%.
During your off during your tenure in the office.
Can you explain your math?
What I said is the criminal cases coming to our office have have dropped 20 to 25%.
And that's accurate in and that's over.
That's three years.
Comparing it to the three years before I took office.
Three years before I took office, there were 12,876 cases that came into the district attorney's office in the three years since, there was 10,050, which is a drop of over 2800 cases.
The Uniform Crime report that you're referring to shows that same pattern in the three years prior to my to my office taking over.
There were almost 14 there were 18,300 cases that came in.
And in the three years since I've been in office, that number dropped to 1407 73 over 3600 case drop.
Those drops or long term patterns that we see existing and that I believe absolutely are a result of all the initiatives that we that we have have instituted.
And if this office was in such disarray and he has no proof to show any of this, these numbers and among other things wouldn't be showing.
Thank you, Mr. Houck, I'll come back to you for the next question.
In recent months, we've seen some police organizations ban the thin blue line flag, saying it's been hijacked by far right groups.
I've seen a similar flag on the wall in your office.
What do you say to people who find that flag offensive?
I've I've met nobody that finds that flag offensive.
I receive that.
I have received endorsements across the board from all the FHP in that they're endorsing in Northampton County, which includes the state police, the statewide state police, statewide firefighters and the operating engineers, sheet metal workers, working people are endorsing me.
The sheet metal workers made that flag for me, and that's a sign and that was done back in 2020, was done as a sign of honor to show my tenure as a Philadelphia police officer.
I put that in there with honor, and there hasn't been a person that's come into my office that has ever questioned that.
They know that I work closely with police.
It's why we get the results that we get that we hope that we can talk about further.
It's why I was able to institute these programs for the first time in Northampton's history.
Like the drug task force, the major crime task force, a gun buyback, which netted over 300 guns and which we're having a second one this weekend.
This is all because of a collaboration that we have with the police department and something I'm very proud of.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, you get the last question of this round.
So Lehigh Valley politics can be a bit rough and tumble.
And your critics have offered a number of suggestions about your entrance into this race.
Everything from ego to padding your pension to restoring the days of the Morganelli administration.
Which is it?
Well, it's none of those.
And by the way, with regard to the pension, I wouldn't max out on my judicial pension for another five years.
And you know that there was a big raise this year.
Mr. Houck got that raise, too.
I lost that raise as part of my pension.
I probably lost about 40 to $50000 a year on my pension by leaving the office early because I'm not close to fully vesting.
So it wasn't for economic reasons.
It was because I feel strongly about criminal justice in Northampton County.
I've been at the courthouse my entire life.
I'm born and raised from Northampton County and I care about what's going on.
That's why I stepped down.
If unfortunately, I don't win, I'll be all right.
I'll move out and I'll do work other places.
But I believe right now that my career is not finished in Northampton County.
I believe I can make a difference.
I believe I can fix the problems in the courthouse and fix the problem in the DA's office.
And that's why I'm running.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
And that concludes our individual questions.
Thank you to both candidates, and thanks also to our viewers and listeners.
We're glad you're with us for this live debate between candidates for Northampton County district attorney presented by LehighValleyNews.com.
Let's move on for the next questions you'll both have a minute to answer.
And if you want to rebut, you'll have 30 seconds for that and just signal us if you want to rebut so that we can go to you.
Tom, can you start us off?
Thank you, Jen.
Mr. Houck, I understand that as district attorney, you have an obligation to enforce any and all laws.
This question is less about the law and more about your personal philosophy.
Does America have a gun problem?
And what does gun control mean to you?
Guns is a very good question.
In this in this state.
Gun has a very guns, have a very personal meaning for me because I had a very unique perspective on it as being a police officer.
Within a span of a few minutes, a few seconds.
Actually, a gun almost cost me my life.
And a gun saved my life.
The gun in the wrong hand almost took my life.
And thankfully, I had a gun as a police officer that protected me.
Responsible gun ownership is important.
The identification and knowing that that who owns guns goes guns.
We have to get them registered.
Assault weapons, which police cannot be outgunned when a police officer steps up to a car's car stop and speaks with the owner of that car, he needs to know if that person is carrying the computer will tell him that.
And if he does, then that's fine.
Ghost guns that do not allow that for the police, this has to be stopped.
In addition to that, the police cannot be outgunned.
They cannot have assault weapons pulled on them without a return by them.
So we have to do something about that, about this.
It's out there.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, what are your thoughts on gun control?
Well, first of all, there are 450 million guns in the United States, 25 million or so weapons.
A buyback of old weapons and giving people $100 gift certificate at Wal-Mart, although it's noble and it's good to get all guns off the street, really isn't going to make a dent on what's going on.
Gun violence is the number one cause of death for school age children.
The age can only enforce the laws on the books.
So if a suspect illegally possesses a gun or commits a crime possessing a gun, there should be no negotiated police.
What needs to be done, obviously, is legislation.
I support common sense gun control and the Protecting our Safe Kids Act currently before the Senate.
I think is a very worthy bill.
It doesn't do enough.
But what it does do is it raises the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic weapon.
It bans high capacity magazines.
It requires safe storage of guns.
It bans the sale and possession of ghost guns.
And it strengthens background checks and increases the penalties for trafficking guns.
And studies show that these modifications will save lives.
And I support.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
Mr. Houck, did you have a rebuttal?
That's a long winded way of saying that we need to enforce the gun laws on our books, which we do heavily.
Now, with respect to my gun buyback, I thank my my opponent for bringing it up a second time.
The 300 and some guns that we received in Bethlehem Township in the city of Bethlehem were assault rifles.
They were weapons never used.
They were all weapons.
They were new weapons.
They were loaded weapons.
They were unloaded weapons.
We received hundreds of pounds of of ammunition.
There is no doubt in my mind that that we prevented an accidental, intentional or reckless shooting as a result of those 312 guns we took off the street.
And I'm doing it again this weekend.
Let's move on.
Mr. Baratta, you said earlier that you support the moratorium on the death penalty here in Pennsylvania.
But let me ask you this.
How deep does that support run?
Let's say if you were the D.A.
and a police officer was murdered in the line of duty, would you go for the death penalty in that case?
First of all, I support Governor Shapiro's moratorium for several reasons.
The law with regard to the death penalty has to be fair for everyone.
Right now, there are 101 people on death row.
50% of them are male young African-Americans.
The current death penalty is not fairly applied.
It discriminates based on class, meaning economics and race.
It's plague plagued by high error rates since it's been reinstated in 1974.
We've had 11 people who have received a death penalty penalty, exonerated, meaning they've been released from prison because they were not guilty.
Five since 2019.
That's an unacceptably high error rate at this point.
And the statistics bear out, most importantly, that the states with the highest murder rates have the death penalty.
So it's not a criminal deterrent that the law, as it is now, doesn't function.
So just a quick follow, though.
In that case, with a police officer, obviously an emotional kind of case to try.
What would you do?
Well, it depends on the facts and it depends on what happened.
At this point with this law, because the law is unfair, unless the law changes, I am not going to apply the death penalty.
Let's go to Mr. Houck.
We're going to give you the same question.
Now, in the course of this campaign, you've actually been accused of by Mr. Baratta of using the politicizing the death penalty.
Pennsylvania has and executed anyone in nearly 30 years, as we've mentioned.
What's the point of pursuing a capital punishment sentence if the state is going to apply.
Falsely accused of politicizing it, by the way?
And it's part of our law and it's part of our law.
I will follow.
Make no mistake about it.
I will not ignore the law as my opponent professed to do.
Currently, we have two two people that have been convicted by a jury and sentenced by a jury to death.
They are both white.
And there are appeals pending.
If my opponent were to get in office, it would be him that would have to now approach this family and say, because of my arbitrary beliefs, I'm not going to pursue this any further.
I'm going to drop the appeals and I'm going to and I'm going to go forward.
I will not do that to victims.
We have children that are killed in drive bys.
We have school shootings all the time.
We have this law available.
I will enforce it.
Now, if the governor chooses to put a moratorium on it, that's fine.
But it's not the district attorney's jobs to pick and choose what cases.
It is very defined aggravating circumstances, mitigation.
And when you have those factors, you proceed.
If some point that changes, you are also obligated to withdraw it, which is what we did, has nothing to do with politics.
Did you have a rebuttal?
I do have a rebuttal.
You have 30 seconds.
He speaks angrily about this.
But, you know, since the death penalty has been reinstated, three people were put to death in the nineties.
All three volunteered.
They asked for the death penalty, and those people had mental health problems.
No one who doesn't want to go into that.
The death chamber is going to be put in the death chamber and killed in Pennsylvania.
It's a fallacy.
This law doesn't work and we do not put people to death when people want to oppose the death penalty.
Not one person was put to death over his objection in Pennsylvania.
That’s it for the rebuttals.
Mr. Baratta, thank you.
Let's switch to a matter of bail issues.
Mr. Houck, four years ago, you campaigned on reducing bail for nonviolent offenders.
Last month, you were praised by a police chief for not adopting a cashless bail system.
So just to be clear, what exactly is your office's bail policy and why?
We we have a bail a bail policy in place.
And and it has been in place.
I don't know what you're talking about with the police chief to praise me, but we have a system in place.
And by the way, bail is set by the judge.
So if the judge doesn't like the bail, set it whatever he wants it to be, that's the ultimate apply here.
But in in Northampton County, we have a pretrial department that where 24 crimes are eligible for nonfinancial bail.
Every single one of them.
They meet with the defendants immediately.
The defendants are given this nonfinancial bail.
So this this this grandstanding about the no cash bail.
And it's all nonsense.
It's been in place since 2016, 24 cases plus any case that that is subject for probation is eligible for cash bail.
There are no poor people that are kept in jail.
In fact, the jail is only two thirds.
I think, at most two thirds capacity right now.
There are poor people in jail.
It isn't discriminated by race.
It's done on a system called the Ohio.
It's a it's a model out of Ohio, which is done nationwide.
And it's a very good system and a system I support 100%.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, if you were elected, what bail policy would you enable?
He's talking about whereas, which is a method for analyzing and rating defendants.
First of all, we have people, hundreds of people a year who are detained pretrial because they can't post bail for low level offenses.
Robert Gregory He kept in jail for 12 months on a first offense DUI, and then dropped the charges on the day of trial because he couldn't make his cash bail.
Cash bail discriminates against the economically disadvantaged.
Even small amounts of bail sometimes are impossible for people who live from paycheck to paycheck or don't have a job.
And they have to sit until their case is resolved.
Hundreds of cases every year defendants come before the court.
I see them every month where they plead guilty and get a time serve sentence just to go home.
Cash bail for low level offenses and people who are not a danger to the community should be wrong and they should be allowed out.
We don't have that now.
If I'm the D.A., I'm going to advocate for that and I'm going to tell the judges we don't want these people in jail because they're not a threat to the community.
Did you have a rebuttal again?
Robert Gregory was it was a DUI that bounced off three cars during the course of his of a DUI.
He had 30 $500 bail and had a detainer on, which is why he was initially let go.
But with respect to the bail issues, again, the Ohio risk assessment system is in place and these and they are seen immediately.
So there's this nonsense about people being in jail is just simply not true.
They are seen immediately by our wonderful pretrial probation department where they're evaluated and bail is then set appropriately.
And by the way, sentencing and bail is 100% controlled by the judge all times.
Did you want to did you have one more?
Let's keep it brief.
Gregory applied for a bail modification.
His office came in and opposed it.
And the Thin Blue Line.
Scott Miller, chief of police of Washington Township, drove into a house after being in a bar for 8 hours.
They investigated that.
They knew he was under the influence and they didn't file charges.
So he acts like people who are economically, economically disadvantaged are treated the same.
If that guy would have been a cop, he wouldn't have been in jail at all.
The Scott Miller case is a total fiction, and it's part of these lies that are constant.
I did not receive any word of, of, of Mr. Miller's stopping for two weeks.
I commenced the investigation on my own.
I forced the department to send the reports down, down to us.
And I determined, after looking at that, at these at the video, two weeks after the fact, I investigated this.
There was there was no nothing about that.
I looked at it and he was charged with the offenses that that were able to be charged at the time.
So this craziness about protecting police and the thin blue line is absolute lie.
We're going to have to move on.
Mr. Houck, your opponent suggested at the top of this debate that it's easier to get a non guilty verdict in Northampton County today than it was before your tenure.
Is that true?
Our conviction rates down.
Our conviction rates are 90%.
He uses the numbers and I've been doing this a long time since 1986.
The the guilty conviction.
The conviction rates are always the same.
They're always around 90% because of the the massive amount of people that plead guilty.
So this this this is just simply not true.
Now, with respect to he blames me for the pandemic basically is what's going on.
We try our cases, we take them in and we don't negotiate them out.
And unlike other DA's officers that drop charges or refer them to the attorney general's office because of the pandemic, we don't do that.
We go in there and we fight and we fight with with qualified district attorneys.
And we and we battle every time.
We have a 90% conviction rate.
Anything else is simply untrue.
And I'm proud of the district attorneys, every single one of them that most of them that have been in this office for years.
And years prior to me even getting there.
I'm proud of them.
I'm proud of the work they do.
And the jury makes the decision, not the competency, unless it's the murder case that he handled that I hope we'll talk about later.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, To your opponents point.
Very few cases actually go to trial, as we know.
So is there a problem here or are you nit picking a few cases out of thousands?
Well, if he tries, 18 and nine are not guilty, that's a 50% rate for the entire year of 2021.
2022, he had 11 not guilty verdicts.
You can go get the stats from the court administration from August through November of 2021.
He had nine trials.
One one was a mistrial.
Seven not guilty and one guilty verdict.
And the guilty verdict he got was a domestic violence case where a defendant was charged with aggravated assault, aggravated assault against an unborn child, and two counts of strangulation.
All the felony charges, not guilty.
He got recklessly endangering and simple assault guilty.
So he can't even protect victims of domestic violence.
That was the only case he won over that four month period, and he didn't really win it.
So when you look at the stat, you know, that's a coin flip when a defendant walks into the courtroom that he's going to walk home at the end of the trial.
Mr. Houck, did you want to rebut?
Of course, his stats are absolutely false, as a lot of, is it?
Yes, please look them up, are absolutely false.
And and again, when we came out of the pandemic, the cases that he's referring to and they're not the numbers that he says had to do with that, with cases where where people disappear, changed their minds, had short term memory loss.
We took them in and we fought.
And that's why we have a 90% conviction rate, because if this were true of anything he was saying, we're even though remotely true, everybody would be taking jury trials.
That doesn't happen because they know better.
When we have a case, we take it in and we fight.
And I'm proud of each and every district attorney that I have that does that very thing.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
All right, candidates, now, Tom and I have more questions, but first, we're going to switch things up a bit with what we call the CROSSFIRE ear section of the debate.
That's where you get to ask the questions.
You'll ask your opponent three questions.
They'll have one minute to respond.
But there are no rebuttals here.
Mr. Baratta, you start.
What's your first question for Mr. Houck?
Mr. Houck, how do you plan to improve the relations between the DA's office and the black and minority communities, especially given that there's an EOC complaint against you for racial discrimination?
First off, as my opponent should know, because he's a lawyer, I'm prohibited by the canon of ethics from mentioning EEOC complaints or the nature of those ethics hasn't been one of his strong suits in this campaign.
So it doesn't surprise me that this thing is even brought up.
I've never had a complaint against me.
I'm not going to get into matters of h.r.
And eeoc, and that is to protect the complaining person as well as protect the person who the complaint is made from not permitted to.
And he knows that.
But this this we have our office is more diverse now than it ever has been.
We have african-american workers.
We have Muslim workers.
We have Latino workers.
We have Asian workers, all of whom are very qualified and all of whom I am very proud of.
My office manager is a woman of color.
Her assistant office manager is a woman of color.
And my my chief deputy district attorneys are speaking of the diversity.
I have four chief deputy district attorneys.
Three of them are women.
And I'm proud of all three, and I'm proud of my entire office.
And it's nonsense that this office is in disarray or is is not diverse, is false.
Mr. Houck, now you go.
No, that's fine.
Mr. Houck, your first question for Mr. Baratta.
So you're now you are now on the record stating you will no longer follow the law with respect to the death penalty.
Currently, Northampton County has two men on on that have been convicted by a jury of a murder and and sentenced by that same jury.
The first man was in jail for murder, served 17 years, I think was out two months and then slaughtered a family.
The second man ambushed the police officer.
So if you were to get in the office, Mr. Baratta, would it be you or would it be one of your supporters to tell these families that you're going to arbitrarily deny what a jury has imposed fair and square on these two individuals?
Well, I take full responsibility for what would go on in my office, and any decision that would be made would be in conjunction with the family.
And I would explain to them what my position is and what the issues are.
And as victims, I would allow them to speak their mind and address the issues with a free and frank discussion.
I'm not afraid of that.
I've always been able to engage in difficult conversations with anyone.
DA's historically, I have always exercised discretion with regard to the crimes charge.
There are murder.
There are murder cases that are before the office.
Contemplate needed to be filed where a D.A.
might decide that it was self-defense and not file those charges.
So he does have discretion to address every aspect of the charging function, including the death penalty.
And I will exercise my discretion responsibly.
And if the law, in effect, is unfair, like it is now and and discriminate discriminates against other people, I am not going to impose a death penalty.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
And now your second question for Mr. Houck.
Mr. Houck, our campaign has been contacted by Republican operatives who claim that your campaign is attempting an organized writing campaign.
Is it true that if you lose a Democratic primary, that you will register as a Republican to run the second time?
Well, I think I just heard the word operatives.
I don't know that I have any operatives, but so but I intend on doing a write in campaign for the Republican votes that way when I win the primary, the Democratic opponent.
In the event that Mr. Baratta or anyone else, for that matter, decides to run on the Republican side, I will hopefully win that side as well.
I'm not going to lose the Democratic side, so I don't have to worry about that.
The purpose of me running on the Republican side is that so I end the race in May.
It's just that simple.
And and that's what I'm.
And because there is no candidate and only because there's no candidate.
I've decided to to to run this and you didn't need a Republican operative to to to tell you this.
You could have simply picked up the phone and called me.
Well, why would I suspect that you'd want to be a Republican?
We're going to call it there the day.
Mr. Houck, your second question for Mr. Baratta.
In 1997, when running for judge against all the Democrats, you sent out a mail or four days before the election falsely claiming to have the endorsement of the Democratic Party.
This action was condemned by the Democratic Party in the morning call one day before the election.
Your present campaign has followed this pattern where you set no agenda, have no platform, but just spread false attacks.
Is the voting public to expect the same campaigning you did in 1997 now to continue through this year's election date on May 16th?
Well, first of all, I don't remember.
I don't remember that issue.
But if that occurred, I I'm sure I addressed it.
But I'll say this about this campaign.
I have a website.
I have an Instagram page.
I've been mailing.
I've been releasing press releases.
I've been full and frank about what my platform is.
There's no secret I've attacked the way you've run the office.
I've attacked things that have happened in your office.
I've what I believe is soft corruption in your office.
And I've discussed what I'm going to do about it.
And I'm doing that right now.
There's no secret about how I feel about this campaign.
There's no secret about what Mike.
And there's no secret why I running.
So I'm a little confused as to why you're why you believe that I haven't been Frank about who I am and what I'm going to do in this election.
Because you've had a pattern of lies.
Mr. Baratta, your third and final question for Mr. Houck.
Well, Mr. Houck, the voters have yet to hear from you regarding the drug dealer, Christopher Ferrante, arrested by you for homicide, by drug delivery, who was released after you spent 15 months jail because you weren't ready for a third time to go to trial.
We haven't heard from you yet.
What happened and why is it that you weren't ready for trial.
If you haven't heard from me, it's because you're the only one that hasn't been listening.
Christopher Ferrante was arrested for drug delivery resulting in death.
During the course of our investigation.
We came upon a that was entered into this victim's system.
That that was new.
We need an expert report as somebody to come in and testify to that, because in order to convict somebody of this crime, not only do you have to show he gave the drugs, but that those drugs killed the victim.
We asked the judge for a continuance to get this expert who is who was wanted across the country for this because he was so, so few in demand.
When the judge refused that, we appealed that, which is our absolute right.
We got the report and we are now we now stand ready for trial.
Christopher Ferrante is not running around.
He's under house arrest.
That's another lie that was told.
He's under strict monitoring and wears a bracelet.
So this stuff about him running around committing drugs or whatever it is, is nonsense.
And also, I spoke with the victim's family who he never spoke with Friday.
And they are deeply, deeply pained and upset with him making this a political issue to begin with.
This is going to be the final question for this CROSSFIRE round.
So, Mr. Houck, let's hear your third and final question for Mr. Baratta.
In the 1994 murder case of Commonwealth versus Laurie Schreier, you failed to turn over a hair comparison report and expert name to the defense, so you were prohibited from using it in trial.
Also, during the course of the trial, the D.A.
himself had to come into the courtroom and assume questioning of a critical witness due to your ineptitude and shortcomings.
I've had these conversations with the D.A.
several times over the year and was also over the years, and it was also published in the Morning Call.
Would you agree with me that committing these serious errors in preparation and competence are firable offenses, especially from the person that's supposed to be the first assistant and somebody supposed to mentor?
Because in under my charge, I'll tell you right now, if somebody did that, I've never heard it before.
Somebody did that, they would be fired.
Well, first of all, Laurie Schreier was a murder case.
It was a not guilty verdict.
I tried that case with a state trooper, Joe Vasquez, and Bethlehem Township police detectives George, both in Scott, Lou Perry.
They continue to be good friends of mine.
We worked well together in that trial.
John Morganelli was my boss.
He asked me to take on that case because it was a difficult case.
I saluted and I went in and I did that case.
Mr. Morganelli did not replace me.
Mr. Morganelli had no problems with how I handled that case.
He remained my good friend and continues to remain a good friend.
In fact, he was the one that suggested I run for judge and he supported me, was on mailers and was on TV endorsing my candidacy.
And to this day, we're close.
So the whole idea that he disciplined me or he took over my case or he was somehow appalled by my performance is not true.
And if you ask those police officers involved there, tell you whether I was valuable, and they'll tell you whether I did a good job or not.
You were in Bucks County then running for D.A.
Let's wrap it up.
And thank you, gentlemen.
That concludes the CROSSFIRE segment of our debate.
Once again, this live debate for Northampton County district attorney is being brought to you by LehighValleyNews.com.
With PBS 39 and 91.3 WLVR, just a reminder for our candidates as we head into the next segment.
You each again get up to a minute to respond.
And if you want to rebut something, you'll have 30 seconds.
I want to begin here by asking both of you about the ethics.
Each of you has accused the other of unethical behavior in this campaign.
So why should voters trust you to carry out the really weighty responsibilities of this office?
We're going to hear from you first, Mr. Houck, on that.
I, I don't know what you're referring to with respect to the ethics other than him bringing up EEOC complaints with, which is an ethics thing and him continually bringing up cases of victims with their names in it without their permission.
His attacks of ethics on me have been completely misstated.
He's never provided one bit of proof.
He's never provided any any credibility or any backup for anything he's ever said.
From the Ferrante case to the Miller case.
Everything he's he's blasted off about, they've always been just these rumors.
And he said himself when he started this morning.
Ah, when we started the evening that he didn't even know what was going on in the DA's office.
And that's probably the only truthful thing you've heard from him, because in 17 years, the 17 years I've been in that office, he's never stepped foot.
He's up on a post on the third floor where no one else can go.
He's never been in our office.
I don't know that even knows where our office is.
And and so these things that he's hearing are not things that that have any kind of proof whatsoever.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta, I'm going to send that same question to you.
Why should voters trust you with the office instead of Mr. Houck?
Well, first of all, the ethics issue include includes that he makes money outside the DA's office when he's a full time D.A.
He got paid by crime inspector.
And it doesn't matter whether or not it was a friend of his from ten years ago that he claims he referred he was a government employee, didn't have a private practice in Pennsylvania.
You're not allowed to refer cases unless you have an active practice and you have an attorney client relationship.
He could never have that.
He went to Klein inspector and said, this guy is my client.
Even though I'm a full time D.A., I want a referral fee.
That's unethical, unethical, and that's a fact.
And the fact that Mr. Pepper is a full time employee and he's running a private practice at the same time, and he collects COVID relief funds that he doesn't pay back to support that private practice.
And he and his partners in the office with a criminal defense attorney who negotiate cases is a clear conflict of interest and ethical violation.
And he wants to say, I don't talk about it.
I've been speaking about that the whole campaign.
Mr. Houck, a chance to rebut.
I'm not saying he doesn't speak about it.
That's all he speaks about.
It's just that it's all false and he can't prove any of it.
The reason he's upset with this attorney, he keeps saying get special treatment is because he wouldn't support him.
And they were friends when all this started.
That's all that's about with respect that he's a phony culvert relief fund.
This was this was a small business loan that was given and applied for under perfectly legal circumstances.
And he paid and he was was totally above board, knows nothing to the federal government.
Finally, the statement of financial interest form that we're talking about was something I self-reported.
And and it was the Pennsylvania the Pennsylvania, I have to say it is the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission told me when I received that that it was fine.
His his statement that if this is.
Fact is that we're going that's we're going to stop there.
So let's let's take a step back for a moment.
Look at the big picture.
We've become accustomed to attack ads, but perhaps not so much in a local primary where the candidates are from the same political party and we're the winners.
Job is to enforce the law evenly and fairly.
Mr. Barata, has your campaign contributed to the lack of civility that we're seeing in local races?
Well, the problem is, yes, it's a negative campaign because I have to speak about all the problems in his office.
And as you know, Mr. Shortell, the whole landscape with regard to media coverage has changed.
There used to be two reporters that were in the courthouse every day, and we report on things.
We have no reporters there.
Nobody knows what goes on.
Nobody walks around and talked to the employees.
So I have to deliver this message myself.
Unfortunately, it's not pleasant to hear, but that's what's going on and that's the reason why I'm running and that's why I have to deliver this message.
Mr. Baratta, Thank you.
Mr. Houck, has your campaign contributed to this overall tenor?
No, we haven't said a word.
I mean, his statement about about this being a negative campaign, which I'm glad he finally admitted negative campaign is when you say things falsely, it's not when you're when you're making constructive criticisms.
Everything he has said has been absolutely false and not proven.
And he's and to this day, he still has not not proven anything.
In addition to that, he fails to put any kind of platform or specific agenda other than I'm going to do this.
I'm going to do that without any kind of specifics.
I have I have steered clear of his attacks until tonight, his false attacks, exposing every one of them as false.
And he is yet to do anything other than say, this is what I heard or this is, you know, something along those nature when he when he has absolutely no proof, when he has absolutely no corresponding evidence.
And the statement statement of financial interest is a perfect example, because I got the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission to say it was okay.
In fact, they chuckled when we talked to them because it happened 12 years ago.
I was never inside that firm.
I gave my advice to a friend to go to that firm, and that was all that took place.
When I received the referral check, I was in shock and called them and they cleared it.
Let's move on, Mr. Baratta, to the Lehigh Valley.
Apparently, they're stopping me now too.
Mr. Baratta, The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute says a disproportionate number of Hispanic and black children are being funneled into the criminal justice system through something they describe as the school to prison pipeline.
How would you fix that?
Well, you can't fix that as a D.A.
with regard to the cases that are referred to you.
What you do to try to fix that is you try to be compassionate and you work with the Juvenile Justice Department or the juvenile probation department to make sure that these people are appropriately charged and that whatever the resolution is, is compassionate.
It has to.
The only thing we can do from the inside when charges are filed are make sure that it's process appropriately, when there are children that are charged that shouldn't be charged.
I will exercise discretion and I will dismiss those charges if the children are appropriately charged.
We're going to process them in a compassionate and fair manner, manner and and the same way we would anyone else.
We're going to treat everyone the same.
So I can't fix the pipeline.
But when it when it comes to me, I can fairly deal with it and I can fix errors and people who are not properly before the court.
Mr. Houck, Lehigh Valley Live reported last year that out of 33 children who were being housed at Northampton County's Juvenile Justice Center, 22 of those children were black, three were Hispanic and eight were white.
Do you see this as an issue?
Well, I would have to know where they came from because the Juvenile Justice Center houses has houses, children from all over, not necessarily Northampton county.
They take them from Lehigh County, take them from Philadelphia.
They take them from a large part from from overflow.
I have not seen these numbers that the Lehigh Valley Institute that you're talking about.
And I don't and I don't believe that they're like that.
Those numbers in Northampton County, I believe they might like be like that in Lehigh a little bit more.
The numbers were actually from Northampton County.
They they got them from the Juvenile Justice Center.
Okay, good enough then.
Then my my response was there is a way to to go at it.
And number one is you have a safe to say program in which police officers are now permitted to to talk about child trauma when they when they get reports so that the schools see this so people don't overreact to children in school when they have that kind of issue.
In addition to that, you have police officers that are constantly trained and retrained, which we do at the district attorney's office.
We train them and retrain them on issues of juvenile matters as well.
Did you have a rebuttal?
Interestingly, he doesn't know what his own staff is prosecuting.
He doesn't know that his own staff has put those minority children in the juvenile Justice center.
So when he wants to tell me that I don't know what's going on, he doesn't even know what's going on in his very office.
And he wants to say it's not a problem.
And that's why there's a problem with the minority communities.
They don't trust the system and they don't trust the DA's office.
Mr. Houck, did you have something?
Yes, of course.
To get in the Juvenile Justice Center, you have to commit a serious offense.
This is not and there is no police department in this in this that that handles it any differently.
You have to have committed a serious offense and the juvenile probation will recommend they recommend whether to keep them in or not.
It isn't a police officer isn't the DA's office.
It's the level of offense, whether they have parental guidance, whether they can be can be dropped off somewhere where they can be monitor all that has to do with this, this you know, and this this allegation that they're that they're holding them has more to do with their their there's their economics status than it does with with anything else.
Let's shift gears a little bit.
Mr. Baratta, you've said on your website that you'll decriminalize simple marijuana possession if elected.
But DA's don't have that authority.
Should district attorneys be ignoring laws on the books?
Well, first of all, Bethlehem has a city ordinance that decriminalizes a small amount of marijuana.
Most people across the country believe that it really shouldn't be a crime.
In 2022, Mr. Houck prosecuted 350 small amount of marijuana cases, 220 of them pled guilty.
These young adults lose their right to apply for federal loans for education, and they have difficulty getting jobs.
With that drug conviction for a small amount of marijuana, another 110 had to go in the air day and pay 1400 dollars to go through the process.
If I’m D.A.
when a small amount of marijuana comes in, I am going to start a new track for our day.
Addressing small amount of marijuana.
It's going to be a result then and not a conviction for those young people.
They're going to receive a fine and they're going to have a small education program.
They're going to have to complete so that we can try to rehabilitate them so this doesn't happen again.
So marijuana can be decriminalized from within my office by a special aid program.
And that's what I'm going to do.
Mr. Houck, someone could drive a mile from the courthouse and legally purchase recreational marijuana, is prosecuting people for personal use.
A wise use of your resources?
And that's why we don't do it.
His numbers are bloated and untrue.
If they if they accompany other crimes like robberies and thefts and things like that, that crime might be on the books.
But I routinely divert all of of and I don't myself I handle all diversionary cases in 90 why in the district attorney's office and I and I divert everyone for low four low level marijuana offenses.
In addition is the district attorney's office that gave permission to the to the and their consent to Bethlehem to make a decriminalized low amounts of marijuana in their in their patrols.
So they have our consent to do that They do it.
Lehigh County chose not to and I routinely, as stated, divert these these cases these numbers of of people being in jail and not getting bail and they're inflated and are simply not true.
Mr. Baratta, you wanted to rebut?
Just pull the stats.
I ran the stats.
I ran the stats for 2022.
Those numbers are accurate and true.
He can call me a liar all he wants, but the facts don't lie.
Secondly, Bethlehem has decriminalize marijuana.
Why are all the other kids in the county then exposed to convictions for small amount of marijuana?
Because he wants to prosecute them and doesn't recognize that it can be treated differently.
Let's move on.
I have a quick question.
You're each going to have just 30 seconds in this portion to answer the question.
The former district attorney, John Morganelli, has come up already several times during this debate and at different points in time.
Each of you served as his top lieutenant.
What differences do you see between how he ran the office and what you want to achieve?
We'll start with you, Mr. Houck.
I believe I worked for him as a full time, the first full time district, first assistant district attorney.
And there was a lot of good policies in place when I came.
I innovated by creating task forces, gun buybacks, working in conjunction, way more with the police, in collaboration with the police to establish these.
I also did a community outreach, which was never done before.
So I innovated and and got it more up to the present time.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
Mr. Baratta thirty-seconds.
John Morganelli did everything that Terry Houck is claiming he did first beforehand.
Drug task force, gun buybacks, everything.
He learned that from Morganelli.
I was with Judge, Judge Morganelli at his office 25 years ago.
It's a new day and age.
I'm going to have a new set of policies.
We're not going to revert back to how we business in the nineties.
We're going to bring it into the current days and we're going to address the social justice issues that need to be addressed today.
We're not going to do rebuttals now.
We have one more question we're going to try to squeeze in.
Mr. Houck, early in your tenure, there is an incident where ICE arrested an undocumented man who is in the courthouse for a hearing.
But do you have any concerns that practices like that could harm your office's ability to get defendants, victims, witnesses to appear and testify in trial?
No, no, not at all, because I change that immediately upon getting it.
That that case you're referring to, ICE came in are pretty much on their own and went up to the and went up to the courtroom to take that person.
I understand that person also had a had a warrant for him.
I don't look at the names.
I don't look at where they come from when I when I do awards, when I when I divert cases, when I put people in mental health court, the only thing I want to know is do we know who they are and do they have prior records?
And can I can I divert this case?
It has to do 100% with the case and not with the person's name or where they're from.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
I remember that case.
Josh Fulmer, God bless him.
Was the attorney representing that immigrant.
And he was standing in the court house halls yelling at the DA's office because they sandbagged his client and they called ice on him.
He was so angry and he was angry for months about that.
And immigrants, even though they are undocumented, deserve the same protections that the citizens do.
Due process rights, the right to go to R.D., the right to participate in our problem solving courts.
He puts up barriers to immigrants because he treats them differently and he doesn't allow them the same privileges that citizens have.
Would you like to rebut?
15 seconds, though.
It's simply not true.
He's just he's just telling fallacy now.
It's just it's crazy because the ice cream came on their own and took this this man.
And by the way, he eventually pled guilty in Northampton County to the crime, which he was charged.
We had nothing whatsoever.
And he can say it until until the cows come home.
Doesn't make it true.
Thank you very much.
Believe it or not, we've come to the time for closing statements that our went quick.
Each candidate is going to get 60 seconds for their closing statement and will go in the order determined to earlier, which gives Mr. Houck the last word tonight.
But first, Mr. Baratta, your closing statement.
Well, you have heard Mr. Houck’s responses to these questions, and perhaps better stated, his non-response as to many of the issues he caused me.
He refers to me as a liar.
Maybe that I'm a bad person.
Well, the facts are the facts are.
The statistics I gave you are the cases I referred to.
They're all there.
And he can't run from those.
The district attorneys, the chief law enforcement officer in this county, we have the right to demand accountability, transparency and competence from him.
However, above all else, the district attorney is also a lawyer and the person elected by you to dispense justice fairly and equally to all our citizens.
We must also demand then that he complies with the ethical obligations of both the Office and those required of all lawyers.
I don't believe Mr. Houck measures up.
That's why I'm running.
As for my candidacy, I rest on the facts presented to you my performance in this debate, my reputation in the community during my entire lifetime, including my 25 years as a judge.
In closing, I ask for your consideration of these matters.
And finally, I ask for your vote.
Thank you, Mr. Baratta.
Mr. Houck, your closing statement.
For my 45 years in law enforcement, I have fiercely guarded my reputation by being transparent and endeavoring to uphold the highest ethics.
I have done that as both a police officer and prosecutor.
I have never had as much as a complaint made against me.
Since January, I've been fighting back against this campaign of lies and misstatements.
It has been very difficult both for me and my family.
It's hard to respond to or anticipate a lie made up out of thin air.
He has no platform, has no agenda.
Before my opponent left office, he attempted to secure employment as an attorney in the health care industry and with several law firms without success.
He is now running for D.A.
is a last resort.
He has made you his last resort.
However, for victims and their families, you have always been my number one priority.
I I've worked tirelessly with the experience to provide justice for all affected by the criminal justice system.
Going forward, I have a plan to provide a safe space for child victim victims.
I will continue to fight the opioid battle by holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for the damage and arrest serious drug dealers.
I will continue to reduce our crime statistics by employing new and innovative policing methods, and I will expand our community outreach and problem solving course to deal the issue of mental health.
To do that, I respectfully ask for your vote on May 16th.
Thank you, Mr. Houck.
And this concludes our debate for Northampton County district attorney.
We want to thank the candidates for being here and participating in this forum and our studio audience.
You can give the candidates and yourselves a hand.
Thanks also to my co-moderator, Tom Shortell, our politics reporter here for LehighValleyNews.com.
And good night.