Chesco DA Announces Criminal Charges Against Mariner East Security Workers

The workers — elected state constables hired by a private Harrisburg-based company to provide security near sinkholes along the pipelines — have been charged with official oppression, among other offenses.

An aerial view of Mariner East construction work in West Whiteland Township in 2018. | Photo courtesy of TJ Allen

This is a developing story and may be updated at any time.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan on Thursday afternoon announced criminal charges stemming from his office’s ongoing investigation of the cross-state Mariner East pipeline project.

The charges involve two state constables — 58-year-old Michael Robel, a constable in Northumberland County, and 47-year-old Kareem Johnson, a constable in Chester County — hired by a private company to provide security along the pipelines.

Robel and Johnson turned themselves in on Thursday morning. They have been charged with official oppression, as well as Ethics Acts violation and related offenses. Bail for each of the defendants, which had not been paid as of 2 p.m. on Thursday, was set at $25,000.

In Pennsylvania, state constables are elected officials typically responsible for monitoring polling places, serving arrest warrants, transporting criminal defendants for court purposes and serving as courtroom security. They’re required by the state Ethics Act to file statements of financial interest for any amount of income greater than $1,300, and they’re forbidden to use their official authority for private benefit.

According to the DA’s Office, Robel and Johnson were subcontracted as private security for the Mariner East project by a Harrisburg company doing business as Raven Knights, which asked them to provide copies of their state constable certification and firearms cards. Banking records show, per the DA’s Office, that the company paid Johnson $36,785 for his private security work in 2018, and Robel $27,995 for his work in 2018 and 2019. Neither constable reported this income on a Statement of Financial Interests forms for 2018.

mariner east criminal charges

Michael Robel (L) and Kareem Johnson | Photos via the Chester County District Attorney’s Office

The Mariner East natural gas pipeline project is being built by Energy Transfer and its subsidiary Sunoco Pipeline L.P. Hogan’s office began investigating the Mariner East project, as well as Energy Transfer and Sunoco, in December 2018, after noting, among other things, “bullying of Chester County citizens by big corporate interests,” Hogan said at the time.

One month later, Hogan announced that residents had complained to the office that private security officers guarding sinkholes along Mariner East construction sites had identified themselves as state constables. When pressed by detectives, Hogan said, at least one security officer identified himself as a state constable and said that he had been hired as security along the pipelines.

At the time, Hogan described the officer as “hired muscle showing up to intimidate our citizens.”

Raven Knights did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

In its own statement, Energy Transfer stressed that constables Johnson and Robel “were not Sunoco or Energy Transfer employees.”

“They were employed by Raven Knights, who provided security services and personnel,” the Energy Transfer statement continued. “We have a code of conduct for all of contractors and third party vendors that clearly states what are acceptable behaviors and business practices, and we expect our contractors and their employees to adhere to that.”

The Mariner East pipelines — Mariner East 1 and 2 and the not-yet-completed 2x — carry highly compressed natural gas liquids. They stretch 350 miles from the Marcellus Shale region near Western Pennsylvania to a revitalized former oil refinery in Marcus Hook, about 10 miles southwest of the Philadelphia International Airport.

“In the last two years, we have seen these pipelines rip through the heart of Chester County,” Hogan said in a statement in December. “We have seen sinkholes created by the pipeline drilling, contaminated well water, and some subtle and not-so-subtle bullying of Chester County citizens by big corporate interests. We expected the state regulators and the governor to step in and assure the safety of Pennsylvanians. They have not.”

Since construction on the project first began in February 2017, the pipelines have been plagued with issues, including roughly 100 state Department of Environmental Protection violationssinkholes that have exposed the buried lines, service shutdowns and construction chaos, as well as, more recently, vocal bipartisan pushback.

Those living near the pipelines — especially in Philadelphia’s neighboring Chester and Delaware counties — fear for their lives. Many stress that the content the pipelines carry is highly explosive in the event of a leak, and they fear that neither Sunoco nor state agencies are doing their part to adequately inform the communities of how to act in and avert a disaster. Three leaks have occurred along Mariner East 1 since 2014, though none has resulted in an explosion.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Commission are the two state entities mainly responsible for overseeing the pipeline project. In a press release issued Thursday, Hogan noted that the state DEP “has retained criminal defense lawyers to represent them in this investigation, and have insisted that all communication go through those lawyers.”

“In almost 30 years working in the criminal justice system, I have never seen a state or federal agency retain criminal defense lawyers to communicate with the prosecutors that the agencies were supposed to be helping,” Hogan said. “It raises questions for the public about what exactly is going on with the Mariner East Pipeline and Pennsylvania’s government. Governor [Tom] Wolf needs to answer these questions.”

 In a statement, a spokesperson for the DEP said the organization “routinely retains outside counsel when appropriate,” and that “in this case, the Chester County DA’s office gave strong indications that DEP counsel should avoid potential conflicts of interest that could arise by representing the agency and its employees. DEP agreed and therefore, to avoid any potential ethical dilemma, retained outside counsel.”

Hogan said his office’s ongoing investigation will include an incident that occurred on Monday evening, when residents in West Goshen Township were left rattled after feeling their homes shake and hearing what sounded like a nearby explosion around 8 p.m. The noise came from Sunoco’s Boot Station, which services the Mariner East pipelines.

In a statement on Tuesday, Energy Transfer said the sound was caused by a backfire on a flare stack, which the company said is “similar to what happens when a car backfires.”

“At no time was anyone in the surrounding area at risk,” the company’s statement read. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused to our neighbors.”

You can find more in-depth information on the Mariner East pipelines here and here.