Mariner East 2 pipeline construction crews work in the backyards of homes on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, Chester County, on May 2, 2018. Sinkholes that opened in the area prompted the state's Public Utility Commission to order that an existing pipeline nearby, the Mariner East 1, be shut down until it could be determined that the sinkholes didn't threaten its safety. PUC on May 3 approved a re-start of Mariner East 1.
Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania
How a Harrisburg company was ensnared in the investigation of Energy Transfer’s alleged “buy-a-badge” scheme for pipeline security
Rachel McDevitt is a reporter for StateImpact Pennsylvania at WITF.
Rachel joined WITF in 2017 as the host of Fresh Air and All Things Considered. She previously reported for WITF’s Radio Pennsylvania Network, where her work earned the National Association of State Radio Network’s award for best feature two years in a row. The western Pennsylvania native started her journalism career with the CBS affiliate in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Rachel is a graduate of Temple University.
On Jan. 21, Chester County Detective Bernard Martin parked his vehicle on Lisa Drive in West Whiteland Township, near the site of a pipeline construction project he had been investigating for just over a month.
A man came up to Martin and told him he couldn’t be parked on the public street. The man was in uniform and carrying a gun.
Martin asked who he was. The man said he was State Constable Mike Robel, and showed Martin his badge. Martin knew Robel was not a Chester County constable, and pressed him for more information. Robel said he was a constable in Northumberland County.
Martin said he was a detective with the district attorney’s office, and that he would leave when he finished what he was doing.
Later that day, Martin wrote in charging documents, he found Robel again and asked who he worked for. Robel said he was a subcontractor for the Mariner East 2 pipeline builder and was working for a man named James Murphy. He told Martin that the pipeline company wanted uniformed constables to provide security for the project.
In an interview, District Attorney Tom Hogan recalled when Martin got back to the office that day.
“You won’t believe what happened,” Martin said.
Hogan immediately told Martin: Find out if there are more constables working security for the pipeline.
Hogan said he knew something was wrong, because constables are elected officials prohibited from using their badges to enforce private security.
From there, court documents reveal, what had begun as an investigation of construction and safety concerns around the pipeline project expanded to uncover what Hogan calls an illegal “buy-a-badge” scheme — one that directly involved Harrisburg-area security firm Raven Knights LLC and the two men who ran it, James Murphy and Richard Lester.
Courtesy: Chester County District Attorney's office
James Murphy, operator of Raven Knights LLC, was arrested Tuesday and faces charges of bribery and conspiracy related to security of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Chester County.
Hogan’s team would eventually comb through thousands of pages of financial documents to follow the money from the constables to Raven Knights and other subcontractors of Energy Transfer, the parent company of pipeline builder Sunoco.
Investigators say Raven Knights hired and paid constables to act as private security for the pipeline, using money from other sources coordinated by Energy Transfer.
The two men who ran Raven Knights, former Pennsylvania state troopers Murphy and Lester, are among five people now facing charges that include bribery and conspiracy.
Public information on Raven Knights is scant.
Department of State records show the company was created on Dec. 14, 2012. Its listed address is a home in the Harrisburg suburbs. Raven Knights does not appear to have a website, though it does show up in online business listings.
Lester, the registered owner of Raven Knights, holds a private detective license in Dauphin County. In 2001, Murphy pleaded guilty to a felony Wiretap Act violation, which makes him ineligible to hold a private detective license. The license is necessary to perform private security services.
Yet prosecutors allege Murphy effectively operated the business.
“This is not somebody who you’re going to and expecting to get a clean and straightforward security operation out of,” Hogan said.
Detective Martin’s 29-page affidavit of probable cause recounts the path investigators took from his encounter with Robel to Raven Knights.
He began interviewing other constables working security for the pipeline. They told him they had been recruited by Murphy, that they had sent him their constable credentials to be hired, and they were paid with checks from the company.
Hogan’s investigation got a boost from a separate audit done by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Hogan couldn’t say why or how Homeland Security became involved, but said the agencies shared information on the case.
Courtesy: Chester County District Attorney's office
Richard Lester, registered owner of Raven Knights LLC, faces charges of bribery and conspiracy related to security of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Chester County.
On May 15, Homeland Security Agent Thomas Eyre and Auditor Brian Golden went to Lester’s home north of Harrisburg with a request for business documents. Lester told agents he worked for Murphy, and he’d let Murphy know agents wanted to talk to him.
On July 1, Murphy called Eyre and claimed the only reason Raven Knights was being audited was because the company’s contracts with the pipeline project “made some people jealous.” Constables had told investigators that Raven Knights hadn’t given them 1099 tax forms to report their income, but Murphy told Eyre the company had done so.
When Eyre got his requested Raven Knights documents about three weeks later, the affidavit says, they revealed another layer of the alleged scheme: Murphy and Lester used a Wells Fargo bank account to hide payments to constables and get around tax reporting requirements. They paid their regular security personnel with payroll checks, but constables got handwritten checks that didn’t go through payroll.
Meanwhile, money was coming in to Raven Knights from several sources. Financial documents showed investigators that Raven Knights’ bank account received deposits from international security firm TigerSwan and several other subcontractors during the time constables were providing security in Chester County. Investigators say numerous checks were endorsed by Murphy. Many were written payable to Murphy, and multiple online transfers were made directly to Murphy.
In total, prosecutors say Energy Transfer’s subcontractors paid Raven Knights $804,590 between Sept. 28, 2017, and Feb. 8, 2019. The company paid about 19 state constables $235,030 for security work between Sept. 29, 2017, and March 14, 2019. Hogan said it’s not clear where the rest of the money went, but it might have gone to other security operations.
Although constables must report outside income above $1,300, state ethics forms show only two of the 19 constables reported Raven Knights as a direct source of income. Prosecutors say Raven Knights’ failure to provide 1099 tax forms enabled constables to avoid reporting the income — a violation of the state Ethics Act.
The money that went to constables led detectives to arrest Robel and Kareem Johnson on Aug. 8, and charge them with bribery, official oppression, and Ethics Act violations. At the time, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman said the two men “were not Sunoco or Energy Transfer employees. They were employed by Raven Knights, who provided security services and personnel.”
Hogan saw an opening. He told his team, “OK, you guys go and find out who did hire [the constables] and who did set all this up.”
Detectives discovered an email trail between Murphy and Energy Transfer’s security manager Frank Recknagel. Investigators say multiple emails between Murphy, Recknagel, and employees from TigerSwan detailed the use, payment, training and duties of constables. Emails differentiated between the use and payment of regular security and constables.
In an email detectives found from Nov. 30, 2017, Recknagel told an employee with TigerSwan it is Energy Transfer’s “unwritten policy” to use “on duty” law enforcement, sheriffs or constables for armed security details. Recknagel, as well as two TigerSwan employees, also face bribery, conspiracy and other charges. Energy Transfer has said the charges are meritless; TigerSwan declined to comment when the charges were filed.
Prosecutors say Murphy personally told constables to wear their badges and uniforms while working as private security for the pipeline.
Prosecutors say Lester’s business documents were used to secure work through Energy Transfer and North Carolina-based TigerSwan. They say Lester signed checks from the Raven Knights account to pay constables for their work as private security for the pipeline.
Murphy and Lester are both free on unsecured bail and are awaiting preliminary hearings.
Reached at the number listed for Raven Knights, Lester deferred comment on the company and the charges to his lawyer, but did not provide the attorney’s contact information or full name.
Murphy’s attorney, Perry de Marco Sr., said he believes the charges against his client are without any substantial merit. He said he will ask for the charges to be dismissed at a preliminary hearing scheduled for Feb. 20.