The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board investigated Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller after rumors circulated she created a fake Facebook profile in a bid to obtain information about defendants her office was prosecuting, multiple sources confirmed to Billy Penn.
Several defense attorneys in Centre County said whoever ran a Facebook account operating as “Britney Bella,” identified as a Penn State student, sent friend requests to either them or their clients dating back to 2011 when the profile was created.
The practice of creating a social media profile for an imaginary person is known as “catfishing” and was the basis of an acclaimed 2010 documentary and an MTV show that debuted in 2012. State College defense attorney Philip Masorti said the legal community in Centre County has been aware of the Facebook activity purportedly created by Parks Miller for more than a year.
“It was a disgusting fraud and just another really unseemly tactic used by the Centre County district attorney to engage in obvious improprieties,” he said. “There used to be a 55-gallon drum of unsavory tactics, but that’s been used up and now they’re onto one of those full-sized Dumpsters.”
A Right-to-Know request filed by a Bucks County man earlier this month includes screenshots of the page. Several profile pictures for Bella match those of an undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was named College Humor’s “America’s Hottest College Girl 2008.” Simon Campbell, a stock trader from Yardley who filed the request for information, said the screenshots were on a USB drive anonymously sent to him in the mail.
Nearly a day after the original publication of this story, Parks Miller said in an email to Billy Penn she did not communicate with any witnesses or defendants “for any information about cases ever.” She did not respond to questions about whether she or her office created the Britney Bella Facebook account, whether she or her office added friends with the account and whether she was being investigated by the Disciplinary Board.
A representative with the state Disciplinary Board said investigations are confidential.
Parks Miller’s attorney Bruce Castor, the former Montgomery County district attorney, said he did not know whether Parks Miller had actually been using the Britney Bella account, aside from a mention about the use of Facebook during a Grand Jury investigation of Parks Miller for a separate issue. He said he wouldn’t consider it unethical if she did misrepresent herself on Facebook.
“It would be unethical for a normal lawyer to do it, but a law enforcement official is different,” Castor said. “Think about it in terms you see every day: We let our officers grow long hair and mustaches and beards, and they don’t come in and say, ‘I’m detective so-and-so.’ They say they’re someone else. They’re misrepresenting themselves….The DA wears the hat of the lawyer, certainly, but is also the chief law enforcement officer.”
The Pennsylvania Bar Association released an opinion on social media ethics in 2014, writing that using social media to contact witnesses “under false pretenses constitutes deception.” An assistant prosecutor in Ohio was fired in 2013 for posing in a Facebook chat as an alleged killer’s girlfriend and seeking to get the alleged killer’s alibi witnesses to change their testimony. The Pennsylvania Bar Association noted the Ohio case in its opinion and added, “He was fired for ‘unethical behavior,’ which is also consistent with Pennsylvania rules.”
In 2009, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Professional Guidance Committee released an opinion on similar conduct of creating a fake social media presence under false pretenses, writing: “The fact that the inquirer asserts he does not know if the witness would permit access to him if he simply asked in forthright fashion does not remove the deception.”
Barbara Rosenberg, co-chair of the Professional Guidance Committee with the Philadelphia Bar Association, said it would be unethical for a lawyer to make a fake Facebook profile and attempt to gather information on defendants or witnesses, especially for a district attorney.
“To me, it’s even more serious,” she said. “A prosecutor has a duty to be an administer of justice and therefore should not take actions that are outside the rules.”
Centre County defense attorney Jim Bryant said Parks Miller’s conduct has been “wildly unethical” and wondered whether the Disciplinary Board was taking action.
“Everybody’s waiting for the next shoe to drop,” he said. “Based on other cases in Pennsylvania and other jurisdictions, you would be disbarred.”
Campbell’s filings included a screenshot of an apparent email Parks Miller wrote to her staff Monday regarding the filed Right-to-Know request seeking records related to the Facebook page. Campbell was copied on the emails he produced screenshots of.
“Please disregard this obsessed person. I apologize again for him using our work servers to obsess over us,” the purported email to her coworkers reads. “That is being taken care of currently. While I know he goes into most people’s junk mail, there is another remedy being sought. I do apologize for his recent onslaught. Just feel free to delete him until the fix is done.”
Campbell said he stumbled upon evidence pointing to Parks Miller’s involvement in the Bella profile in December on her own Google+ page after “Internet rumors” suggested she might have been involved. According to Campbell, an image was posted on Parks Miller’s Google+ account that was a screenshot of someone messaging the Bella profile saying, “Does someone have access to your account? Someone messaged me and said stacy parks miller DA of centre county is posing as you.”
So when Campbell, who has filed several Right to Know requests related to Parks Miller’s activity as district attorney, began reading rumors that she was involved in creating the fake Facebook profile and adding defendants as friends to try to communicate with them, he dug around and eventually filed an information request of her office.
“DAs may be allowed to do this sort of thing legally,” he said. “My point is the Right-to-Know law is designed to hold public officials accountable for their public actions. So if she’s doing this and basically putting out a Facebook profile under false pretenses, that is seriously unethical.”
The friend list of “Britney Bella,” per Campbell’s screenshots, contained many Penn State students and local high school students. The profile picture changed several times, but most of the pictures appear to be from “Alison,” College Humor’s “America’s Hottest Girl 2008.” A Nexis database search revealed no one named Britney Bella in the United States.
After the account apparently became active in May 2011, the page was updated nearly daily. The posts cultivated an image of a party-loving, weed-smoking young woman so stereotypical it bordered along disbelief. One of her first posts was, “Heading out with the GRLS…look out.” She once posted an article about a former Miss USA speaking in favor of medical marijuana and wrote, “My new BFF.”
“Bella” also tried to be representative of Penn State: On Jan. 23, 2012, the day after legendary football coach Joe Paterno died, she posted “RIP JOEPA…We will miss you.”
Bella also had a list of interests, including her favorite movies — “Pineapple Express,” “The Hangover,” The Twilight Saga — and her favorite apps and games, like “Burnout Paradise” and beer pong.
The last posting on the Bella page appears to have been in 2014 and Billy Penn was not able to locate the page as of this week.
Parks Miller, a lifelong resident of Central Pennsylvania, was elected to serve as Centre County district attorney in 2009. She’s been under scrutiny over the last year after it was alleged she forged a judge’s signature. However, an investigating grand jury found no evidence to support such a claim.
Parks Miller has also sued the county and several other officials for releasing her email and phone records as part of a Right-to-Know request filed by local defense attorneys, alleging the county was purposely trying to embarrass her.
The records showed Parks Miller was in communication with Centre County Judge Bradley Lunsford during a 2012 trial. An affidavit written by Lunsford’s ex-court reporter alleged Lunsford and Parks Miller were texting each other about the trial while it was going on.
Castor, a newly-appointed employee in the state Office of the Attorney General, represented Parks Miller and told the Centre Daily Times those allegations were “completely false.”
One legal source who asked to not be identified out of fear of retaliation said people in Centre County are scared of Parks Miller.
“She is still doing things that are just terribly unnerving,” the source said. “It’s amazing how much power the district attorney has.”