Ex-Liberty school superintendent’s felony charges dropped
WARREN — Most of the criminal case against former Liberty Schools Superintendent Joseph Nohra Jr. has been dismissed in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.
Judge Ronald Rice issued the written ruling Wednesday afternoon. The ruling states that a hearing was held in Rice’s chambers on Dec. 9 in which Nohra’s attorney, Dave Betras, asked Rice to reconsider his Nov. 2 ruling denying Nohra’s Oct. 1 motion to “dismiss counts 1 through 6 of the indictment for vagueness.”
Nohra’s trial was supposed to begin Monday before Rice without a jury. Rice would have decided whether Nohra was guilty of six felonies and five misdemeanors dealing with the bugging of a school district office in 2018 while Nohra was superintendent.
Nohra, 50, of Topper Hill Drive, Hubbard, was indicted in a special report of the Trumbull County grand jury in May on six felony counts of interception of wire, oral or electronic communications and five misdemeanor counts of interfering with civil rights. The felony wiretapping counts were dismissed by Rice on Wednesday.
Prosecutors had offered to drop the felony counts, with Nohra pleading no contest to the misdemeanors, which each carried a potential six-month jail term. Nohra, however, told the judge he was declining the offer.
On Wednesday, Betras said he was pleased with Rice’s ruling.
“As we have said previously, Mr. Nohra, at the discrection of the school board, and with approval of legal counsel, took appropriate action to protect the district and the taxpayers. He should have been commended instead of prosecuted,” Betras said.
In his ruling, Rice states “the court finds that there is lack of guidance as to what constitutes an oral communication in this regard and that such lack of guidance leads to the arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of this statute.”
Trumbull County Assistant Prosecutor Chuck Morrow said his office is in the process of reviewing Rice’s opinion, including whether they will appeal. He said his office still contends the statute is constitutional, and a pretrial hearing on the misdemeanor counts is set for today.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the charges dealt with Nohra, when he was superintendent, setting up a hidden surveillance camera and audio above an employee’s desk in the district office in the bus garage. The allegations came from an investigation initiated by the state auditor’s office that was executed through a search warrant by local authorities at the Liberty schools on March 5, 2019.
Betras, however, explained Nohra at the time was presented with credible evidence that a school employee may have been involved in theft in office. Nohra, with the knowledge and approval of the school board and its legal counsel, initiated his own investigation that resulted in that employee’s resignation, Betras said previously.
The alleged criminal offenses occurred over a two-week period in April 2018, the prosecutor’s office stated. Nohra resigned as Liberty superintendent in June 2020.
Meanwhile, a civil lawsuit also is proceeding against Nohra in Rice’s court. In that complaint, filed in July, seven people claim their privacy was affected by secret recordings allegedly ordered by the former superintendent.
Earlier this month, Rice held a scheduling conference with attorneys in the civil case. Depositions of initial witnesses must be completed by Sept. 15, 2022, with all motions about arguments of facts and law to be filed by Nov. 1, 2022. The final pretrial hearing will be set for Jan. 24, 2023, and a jury trial set Feb. 13, 2023.
Named as plaintiffs in the civil action are former or current school district employees Christine Gallaugher of Hubbard, Rick Svetlak of Poland, Dale Fuller of Girard, Karen Copenhaver of Hubbard and Leslie Diana of Youngstown and two others, Gallaugher’s husband David and close friend Francine Delbene of McDonald. Named as co-defendant with Nohra is the Liberty Local Board of Education.
The plaintiffs, who claim invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress, together are seeking more than $595,000 in damages.