HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A county prosecutor on Tuesday accused the owner of multibillion-dollar pipelines carrying highly volatile natural gas liquids across Pennsylvania of illegally using uniformed state constables as a private security force in what he called a “buy-a-badge” scheme.
Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan’s office also charged a security manager for Texas-based Energy Transfer LP and four men associated with security subcontractors that helped recruit constables to patrol the Mariner East pipelines.
The charges include dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activities and bribery.
Energy Transfer, a multibillion-dollar firm that owns sprawling interests in oil and gas pipelines and storage and processing facilities, said in a statement that the charges do not have merit, although it acknowledged the constables were hired at its expense.
Hogan initially charged two constables in August with official oppression and other offenses in his office’s year-old investigation into the heavily fined pipeline project that has drawn protests in Philadelphia’s heavily populated suburbs.
Hogan’s office said Tuesday that 19 constables received a total of $235,000 from 2017 through 2019 in a “buy-a-badge” scheme to misuse their authority.
Internal company documents show that paying law enforcement officers for using their authority is Energy Transfer’s company policy and that contractors were used to hire and pay the constables to hide the scheme, Hogan’s office said.
“This is a pretty simple case,” Hogan said in a statement. “State Constables sold their badges and official authority. Energy Transfer bought those badges and authority, then used them as a weapon to intimidate citizens. And the defendants attempted to conceal their activity through a maze of companies and payments.”
Among the constables’ activities mentioned in court papers were providing security at construction sites, using body-worn cameras to record patrol checks and any incidents, and keeping people off an easement and identifying people in the area.
Energy Transfer could have simply hired a private security firm and paid the security guards directly, Hogan said.
Instead, the security manager, Frank Recknagel, and Energy Transfer “wanted the power of the badge to enforce their corporate will and engaged in illegal activity to make it happen, then hid the payments in a byzantine process to avoid detection of their role,” Hogan said.
Energy Transfer did not respond to specific questions about Hogan’s accusations. In its statement, it said it supports its employee, who it did not name. It also said that local law enforcement knew of the plan and that the community benefited from the security.
“The Pennsylvania constables in question were hired by an independent, Pennsylvania-based security firm to support the West Whiteland Police Department in its efforts to maintain peace within the community,” Energy Transfer said.
A lawyer for Recknagel declined to comment Tuesday.
Construction on the Mariner East pipelines has spurred more than $13 million in fines and several temporary shutdown orders by state agencies, primarily for polluting waterways and drinking water wells, and using construction methods not approved by state regulators.
Sinkholes along the pipelines’ route have opened on lawns in Chester County, and neighbors worry that a single leak would level the entire neighborhood.
It has drawn the attention of several law enforcement agencies, including a corruption investigation by the FBI into how Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration came to issue permits for the project in 2017.
Wolf’s administration, meanwhile, has had run-ins with Energy Transfer in which it accused the company of willfully violating state law.
Exploration firms drilling in the booming Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale fields ship natural gas liquids through the Mariner East pipelines to Marcus Hook refinery and export terminal near Philadelphia, helping the U.S. become the world’s leading ethane exporter.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.