An attorney working part time at Allegheny College when she went on a political campaign sign-stealing spree in broad daylight last year in Venango County has avoided jail but been fined and ordered to pay restitution.
Allison Hartle, 35, of 232 Overlook Drive, Franklin, has pleaded guilty before Magisterial District Judge Andrew Fish in Oil City to a summary charge of criminal mischief tampering with property in a plea bargain with the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.
The Venango County District Attorney’s Office recused itself from prosecuting the case.
The press office of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General did not respond to the Tribune's telephone and email messages on Monday and Tuesday requesting comment on the case.
Pennsylvania State Police at Franklin originally charged Hartle with theft by unlawful taking, a first-degree misdemeanor, for the incident Aug. 31 in Cherrytree Township, Venango County. The theft charge was filed Sept. 30 at Judge Fish's office.
However, the theft charge was withdrawn Dec. 30 and replaced that same day with the nontraffic summary charge of criminal mischief tampering with property. Hartle then pleaded guilty to the summary criminal mischief count before Fish on Dec. 31.
If convicted, Hartle would have faced up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine on the theft charge, which was graded as a first-class misdemeanor. The summary criminal mischief count carried a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $300 fine.
Fish imposed no jail time on Hartle, but ordered her to pay a $300 fine, $75 in restitution and $162.75 in court costs for a total of $537.75. Online court documents show the fines and costs, as well as restitution, had not been paid as of Tuesday.
Contacted Tuesday by the Tribune, Hartle referred questions to Ryan Mergl, her defense attorney. Mergl said Hartle had taken responsibility for her actions and was remorseful.
“I think it’s a fair outcome,” Mergl added. “It was an unfortunate incident, a momentary lapse in judgment from a respected member of the community.”
Police charged Hartle with theft for stealing 15 presidential campaign signs, as well as one presidential campaign flag, from private property near Marsh Lane and Route 8 — an area about 5 miles south of Titusville. Police said the incident took place around 12:10 p.m. Aug. 31.
When interviewed Aug. 31 by Pennsylvania State Police, Hartle told the trooper "that she would pay restitution for the signs and stated ‘I’m not like a criminal or anything,'" according to the affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
The criminal complaint and the affidavit of probable cause only indicate presidential campaign signs and a presidential campaign flag were taken, but one of the alleged victims confirmed to the Tribune on Oct. 6 that all the materials taken were for President Donald Trump’s campaign. That same victim declined comment to the Tribune on Tuesday, but confirmed restitution had not been paid.
Though he viewed the outcome of the case as fair, Mergl suggested that the fiercely partisan nature of the presidential campaign likely contributed to how the case was handled, which he described as “way, way out of proportion” with the crime.
In another election cycle or with another candidate, Mergl said, Hartle’s actions likely would not have resulted in criminal charges.
“If she had taken a Michele Brooks sign or a Parke Wentling sign, I don’t think the state police and the attorney general would be involved,” he said, nor would the crime have been charged as a misdemeanor as was initially the case. “The nature of the animosity and hostility between the two parties this cycle played a big role in the fact that it was charged.”
The role of the hyperpartisan political climate was also somewhat ironic, Mergl continued, because Hartle is a registered Republican.
“It’s not even like some left-wing activist was going around stealing Trump campaign signs,” he said. “She’s not a ‘Never Trumper.’”
Hartle, an attorney based in Franklin, has been licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania since 2013.
She was a part-time program coordinator at Allegheny College’s Department of Law and Policy and the college’s Center for Political Participation at the time of the incident. She had been employed in the position since January 2020. The college confirmed to the Tribune on Oct. 13 that it cut ties with Hartle after she was charged.
In addition to her work at the college, Hartle formerly was an attorney within agencies in both Crawford and Venango counties including two separate stints with Crawford County government.
She was an attorney on a temporary basis with the Crawford County Human Services Department from April 16 through June 18, 2020, according to the county’s Human Resources Department. She previously served as an assistant public defender in Crawford County from March 10, 2014, through Oct. 19, 2015, and also served as an assistant public defender with Venango County from October 2015 through October 2017.
Hartle also won't face any disciplinary action by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts under Pennsylvania Rule of Disciplinary Enforcement Rule 214 because she didn't get any jail time with her summary violation guilty plea.
Rule 214(a) state an attorney convicted of a crime must report the conviction within 20 days to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Rule 214(h) states, "As used in this rule, the term 'crime' means an offense that is punishable by imprisonment in the jurisdiction of conviction, whether or not a sentence of imprisonment is actually imposed." However, the rule goes on to state, "It does not include parking violations or summary offenses, both traffic and non-traffic, unless a term of imprisonment is actually imposed."
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com. Mike Crowley also contributed reporting to this story.