Updated at 12:50 p.m. on Jan. 24
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller told employees in 2011 that she’d created a fake Facebook page to “snoop” on “defendants or witnesses,” according to an email attached to a court filing last week.
Billy Penn reported in March last year that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Board investigated Parks Miller after rumors circulated about the maneuver among the legal community. It’s unclear if that investigation continues, and disciplinary board investigations are confidential.
Last week, State College defense attorney Bernard Cantorna — who is running against Parks Miller for district attorney — filed evidentiary information in support of one of his defendants who is seeking the dismissal of criminal charges. At the bottom of a 214-page filing was a copy of an email sent by Parks Miller on May 17, 2011.
In the email, she wrote that she “made a facebook page that is fake for us to befriend people and snoop. Her name is Britney Bella.” She continued to tell her employees to “use it freely to masquerade around facebook. Please edit it, post things occasionally to keep it looking legit, like things, add things and add friends…. Use it to befriend defendants and witnesses if you want to snoop.”
The last paragraph of Parks Miller’s email noted one picture in the profile was of her sister. Several of the other pictures matched those of an undergraduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was named “America’s Hottest Girl 2008” by the website College Humor. “LOL the rest are fakes,” Parks Miller wrote in the email sent to nine people.
When reached at his office Tuesday, Cantorna refused to comment on the filing, saying only “we’ve entered a really crazy time.” In an email to Billy Penn after this story’s initial publication, Parks Miller wrote “law enforcement can engage in covert investigation on FB and other places,” writing “how else would we get to child molesters, child pornographers and drug dealers on line. It is common and good police practice.”
“These false allegations that we contacted represented clients and communicated with them about their cases, the real ethics prohibition, is complete and total nonsense and never occurred,” she continued.
The court filing from Jan. 18 admits a number of exhibits into evidence in a case involving Jalene McClure, a former daycare provider convicted in fall 2014 of aggravated assault in the beating of a 5-month-old child. She was sentenced to serve 10 to 20 years in state prison.
But after McClure was sentenced, according to the Centre Daily Times, Cantorna filed open records requests for information regarding communications between Parks Miller and the judge who handed down the sentencing, Bradley Lunsford. In an appeal of her sentence to the state Superior Court, McClure’s attorneys also argued that relevant evidence wasn’t admitted during trial.
In August, the Superior Court sided with the defense, vacated the sentence and ordered a new trial, sending the case back to Centre County. Last week’s filing by Cantorna included dozens of pages of evidence referenced in earlier hearings, including the email in question, as an attempt to illustrate intentional prosecutorial misconduct, with the attorneys asking for the retrial to be canceled and McClure exonerated. A pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday in Bellefonte.
Defense attorneys in State College told Billy Penn last year that some of their clients were friend requested by a “Britney Bella,” identified as a Penn State student in the profile. Billy Penn has learned McClure and her two sons were friend-requested by Bella. The practice of creating a fake social media profile and using it under false pretenses is known as “catfishing” and was the basis of a 2010 documentary and a MTV show that debuted in 2012.
The profile was publicly disseminated not long after Simon Campbell, a stock trader from Yardley who has filed several Right to Know requests related to Parks Miller’s activity as district attorney, said he was anonymously mailed a USB drive with screenshots of the Bella profile on it.
Campbell then used those screenshots to file additional open records requests. He told Billy Penn last year that he stumbled across evidence in December 2015 that Parks Miller was involved in the creation of the page because of “Internet rumors.” He said an image was posted on Parks Miller’s Google Plus 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.”
Nearly a day after the original publication of Billy Penn’s March 2016 story, Parks Miller said in an email that she did not communicate with any witnesses or defendants “for any information about cases ever.”
In 2011 and 2012, the Britney Bella profile was regularly updated, with Bella regularly showing approval of marijuana and famous people who liked marijuana. The Bella profile identified her as a Penn State student who was interested the “Twilight” saga and beer pong.
Bruce Castor, Parks Miller’s attorney, did not respond to a message left on his cell phone, but he told Billy Penn last year it would not be unethical for Parks Miller to misrepresent herself on Facebook.
“It would be unethical for a normal lawyer to do it, but a law enforcement official is different,” he 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.”
Legal experts have said it is unethical for attorneys to create fake social media profiles and use them to gather information about clients or cases. Barbara Rosenberg, co-chair of the Professional Guidance Committee with the Philadelphia Bar Association, told Billy Penn last year that district attorneys should be held to these standards, too.
“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.”
In 2014, the Pennsylvania Bar Association released an opinion on social media ethics, writing that using social media to contact witnesses “under false pretenses constitutes deception.”