Senator in legal jeopardy over heir hunting tied to Utah firm
Harrisburg, Pa. • A Pennsylvania state senator faces allegations he violated rules of professional conduct for lawyers while working for a Utah-based company that helps find heirs to people who died without leaving a will.
The Supreme Court's Disciplinary Board this week scheduled an October trial in the case of Dauphin County Republican Sen. Jeff Piccola, a 35-year legislative veteran and Education Committee chair.
A 72-page complaint filed June 29 by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel claims Piccola's violations include a rule that prohibits dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. He has denied all the allegations and did not have a conflict of interest by working for Salt Lake City-based Kemp and Associates, as alleged, his lawyer, Robert H. Davis Jr., said Thursday.
"There isn't any authority in Pennsylvania for the legal propositions that they're talking about," Davis said. "There's no case that holds that the particular activity for which he was engaged with Kemp, which is a nationally prominent organization, is wrong in any way."
The charges relate to his dealings as local lawyer for Kemp and Associates, an heir-hunting firm, as they contacted and came to work on behalf of heirs to three people who died in south-central Pennsylvania in 2003 and 2006.
Harold E. Ciampoli Jr., who filed the petition for discipline, described how Kemp contacted the potential heirs, and said Piccola and the company worked on their behalf in exchange for a third of whatever they eventually inherited.
Piccola got 5 percent, and his response filed July 23 said he has worked for Kemp on about 60 estates that involved hundreds of heirs.
Ciampoli argued that Piccola knew or should have known that similar agreements between heirs and heir hunters have previously been invalidated by state court rulings in 1936, 1951 and 1981. He said Piccola was not able to provide competent representation to those claimants because it would have conflicted with his own interest, and Kemp's interest, in getting paid.
"Allegations are allegations proof is a different thing," Davis said. "Jeff is disappointed that this occurred. I think the people in this area know his character and have demonstrated that by electing him to office. As you can see from our answer, we believe he's an honest, ethical lawyer."
Potential penalties range from informal admonition to disbarment, but Davis said disbarment was highly unlikely.
Kemp's website says it draws on the world's largest genealogical library, maintained by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to perform its research.
Piccola announced last year he would not seek another term in this year's election. Neither he nor representatives for Kemp returned phone messages Thursday.