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Lawyer in attorney general's office sues supervisors

Friday, December 26, 2003

By Mark Scolforo, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Former Attorney General Mike Fisher and high-ranking officials under him have been sued by a lawyer in the attorney general's Pittsburgh office who claims she was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on "arguably criminal" handling of a trust case.

Rita J. Cindrich, 56, a senior deputy attorney general in the charitable trusts and organizations section, filed the federal civil-rights suit last week claiming the defendants conspired to deprive her of First Amendment rights and cause her emotional distress, and put her personal and professional reputation in a false light.

A spokesman for acting Attorney General Gerald J. Pappert, who took over when Fisher was sworn in as a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge on Dec. 15, dismissed the allegations as "baseless and without merit."

"Beyond that we have no comment, because this is in litigation," spokesman Sean Connolly said Wednesday.

In addition to Fisher, the defendants are Alexis Leslie Barbieri, head of the public protection division; Mark A. Pacella, head of the charitable trusts and organizations section; Donald P. Minahan, director of the western region; and T. Lawrence Palmer, a senior deputy attorney general in Pittsburgh.

The suit does not elaborate on the nature of "certain irregularities" Cindrich claims she identified in how an Allegheny County estate was being administered.

She said her supervisors intervened after she sought to bring her objections to the court's attention.

Her attorney, Don Bailey, said she questioned how legal fees had been handled in relation to the multi-million-dollar estate of attorney and businessman John L. Laubach Jr., who died in 1997.

"What she stumbled upon (was) a number of very significant conflicts. And the significant conflicts had to do with the executor and a significant amount of stock and it also had to do with issues surrounding significant requests for attorneys' fees," Bailey said.

The suit stated that Cindrich felt she was "being drawn into, without her knowledge and against her will, an unlawful conspiracy to violate the law and the public trust, which involved, if not the active participation, then the knowledge and intentional acquiescence of the defendants."

By handling the case as her supervisors instructed, she became worried that "others, to include law clerks and judges, would observe the machinations of the Attorney General's Office and question her ethics, integrity, character and professional judgment," the suit claims.

Cindrich, the sister of Pittsburgh U.S. District Judge Robert J. Cindrich, contends Fisher ignored her "suggestions of improprieties" concerning the case, and when she asked for his help dealing with Palmer, Minahan and Pacella, Fisher replied that he could not help because Palmer was his friend, according to the suit.

The lawsuit states that Barbieri made an "overt reference that irregularities had occurred" in other cases, and indicated that Cindrich "was right about this case" as well.

Allegheny County court officials said the Laubach case file was in a judge's chambers on Wednesday and not immediately available for public inspection.

The suit states the defendants ordered Cindrich to undergo "fitness for duty" evaluations from two psychologists, the second of which is not yet complete. She is currently on a leave of absence.

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