by Irvin Muchnick
Lehigh County district attorney James Martin’s perverse exploitation of the Pennsylvania courts to try to silence a local critic, Bill Villa – whose daughter Sheena was killed in 2006 by privileged brat drunk driver Robert E. LeBarre, whom Martin proceeded to give the prosecution-lite treatment – has ended in the powerful and bullying public official’s effective surrender.
I have been following this shameful story for many years – because of a connection to my other coverage and because the news media in this particular corner of crony justice have been, characteristically, failing to tell it themselves. See, most recently, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14959.
Martin last week accepted a $57,500 settlement payment from Erie Insurance, which had been underwriting the defense of the defamation claim under Villa’s homeowner insurance policy. Villa made clear that the settlement was against his will, and he has turned his sights toward a possible counter action against Martin.
Pennsylvania does not have a strong “anti-SLAPP” statute to punish deep-pocket plaintiffs engaging in “strategic lawsuits against public participation” – First Amendment-chilling acts of legal intimidation. But whether or not it technically meets the local legal standards of a SLAPP, Martin v. Villa was a disgraceful abuse of process by an elected official. The case was based on unrefuted facts and protected opinions by Villa, an advertising agency creative person, at his blog and in interviews on radio station WAEB. (The station’s owner iHeart Radio came to a court-sealed settlement with Martin in 2019; Villa, plausibly, believes the amount there could have been $1.)
Martin’s lawsuit, putatively as a “private citizen,” had to have cost many multiples of $57,500. Was it subsidized by public funds or by a slush fund of political allies, or both? We already know that at least one court motion in the case was directly submitted by the district attorney’s office. If thin-skinned public servants can get away with such tactics, then no journalist or outspoken citizen is safe.
In the kind of sideshow that Lehigh Valley observers have come to take for granted, the Allentown Morning Call’‘s story about the settlement reviewed none of the salient facts and even was spun to suggest that it was Villa, not Martin, who was throwing in the towel.
In a further despicable twist of journalistic best practices, the reporter, Peter Hall, claimed that Villa could not be reached for comment. Villa shared with me a subsequent text exchange in which Hall said he had tried a Villa home land-line number, which was actually canceled years ago, as well as an email address that never existed. Villa has been nothing if not visible and available for comment, with his current phone and his email address prominent in every one of the many messages he regularly peppers to local journalists and officials.
According to Villa, Hall also wimped out of soliciting comment from Villa’s attorney, Michael Shay, by the method of asking for another lawyer in Shay’s office with the same first name, instead of Shay himself.
I believe Villa. For his part, Hall has not returned an email requesting comment. The full text of Villa’s statement about the settlement – which I know had been painstakingly prepared in anticipation of the finalization and filing of a resolution he detested – is below for the reference of Concussion Inc. readers.
Not only do I believe Villa – I hereby induct Peter Hall of the Allentown Morning Call into Concussion Inc.’s Gerald Procanyn Hall of Fame of Lehigh County Official Liars. The hall is named for the former chief of detectives of Whitehall Township, who in 1992 lied to my face about the status and content of the regional law enforcement authorities’ passive investigation of WWE star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s 1983 murder there of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino.
The Procanyn-to-Hall lineage is fitting, since the Snuka murder cover-up is the original reason I followed Martin v. Villa from distance. James Martin was an assistant under then DA William Platt (who would go on to become a senior state judge) when that office whiffed on prosecuting Snuka for, at minimum, manslaughter, despite massive circumstantial evidence combined with Snuka’s own almost comically numerous and self-contradictory versions of what had happened to the victim in their motel room.
The Morning Call wrote nothing about the long and all but universally known details of the case, before deciding that it warranted a hyped “cold case” article at the 30th anniversary, in 2013. Of course, this intrepid piece, which would spur now DA Martin to make a referral to a grand jury, somehow didn’t get around to mentioning Martin at all.
By then, Detective Procanyn, long retired from the Whitehall police and collecting his municipal pension, was double-dipping as an investigator in the DA’s office, where Martin put him back in charge of the Snuka murder case. Voila! – an indictment was secured based on the same evidence they had been sitting on for three decades. Then a Court of Common Pleas judge threw out the charges on grounds of Snuka’s mental incompetence, 12 days before he died of stomach cancer. Later, Procanyn would retire from the DA’s office – perhaps kicking in a second monthly pension check.
See “How Jimmy Snuka Got Away With Murder. How the Alllentown Morning Call Helped Cover Up the Historical and Ongoing Corruption in Lehigh County Criminal Justice. Here’s the Story VICE TV’s ‘Dark Side of the Ring’ Was Afraid to Tell,” April 26, 2000, https://concussioninc.net/?p=14447.
The Bill Villa statement censored by the Allentown Morning Call
While I’m grateful for the legal defense that was provided via my homeowner’s insurance policy, Erie Insurance’s recent settlement with plaintiff DA Jim Martin was done against my will.
I wanted my day in court, but DA Martin obviously did not want to go to trial on May 16, knowing he would lose.
And that’s how meritless and malicious SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) ruses work. Martin vs Villa/SLAPP was an abuse of power and process from day one.
DA Martin’s 2015 agenda was to silence my free speech and cause WAEB and Erie to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars countering his stall tactics, eventually paying him to go away.
Seven years later, Mr. Martin has proven no “defamation” (he never even tried) and he has failed in his expensive vendetta to silence my free speech— a vendetta Lehigh County taxpayers unwittingly helped pay for.
DA Martin’s “Get Lost Buyout” of only $57,500.00 from Erie (to preempt his endless appeals) won’t come close to covering Martin’s gigantic SLAPP tab.
I’m declaring victory and weighing options regarding an abuse of process countersuit against Martin, et al, designed to focus attention on the need for stronger anti-SLAPP legislation in Pennsylvania.
No whistleblowing, truth-telling American should be subjected to a SLAPP lawsuit by a thin-skinned elected official like DA Jim Martin who gets zero critical scrutiny from the local media.
It’s a sad day for America when a “prosecutor” can bully and bamboozle his way to cash prizes in a dishonest lawsuit against a crime victim who did nothing but tell the truth.