Mt. Lebanon Democratic committeeman charged with stealing from Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy’s Pittsburgh office

This periodical caper is peak 2017 politics — depending on who you ask, of course.

FLICKR / NPL Newburyport Public Library

In the annals of American — or even Pennsylvanian — political scandals, this one may not rate very high. “Porngate” it is not. Heck, it’s not even the mispronunciation of “Nevada.”

But a scandal it is — one involving a long-time Mt. Lebanon Democratic committeeman and allegations of repeated newspaper thefts from the Mt. Lebanon office of U.S. Representative Tim Murphy (PA-18), a Republican.

Yes, newspaper thefts.

Committeeman Chris Cox was videotaped — and later caught in the act by police — stealing Sunday editions of newspapers from outside the congressman’s office on no less than six occasions in July and August, according to a criminal complaint. Cox faces a misdemeanor theft charge.

The case against Cox began in earnest Monday, Aug. 21. On that date, police received a report of a theft at Murphy’s 504 Washington Road office.

Doug Steeber, a field representative for the congressman, told Mt. Lebanon officers that two individuals took multiple newspapers from the front of the building, and that security footage showed one individual stealing the Post-Gazette’s Sunday edition five times between July 9 and Aug. 20. (There was no immediate word on who the other suspect might be.)

A week later, on Sunday, Aug. 27, a patrol officer saw a man resembling the alleged five-timer from the video on Washington Road. The officer said he watched as the man, later identified as Cox, picked up two newspapers from in front of the building, ditched the protective plastic sleeves and kept walking.

That’s when the officer approached.

“I stopped the male in front of 520 Washington Road. I positively identified the male as the same individual from the security video, that had been taking the papers,” the officer’s criminal complaint reads.

The officer then confirmed Cox’s identity, at which point the committeeman admitted to taking the papers and added, “They were sitting on the street, and no one was working inside the office, so I took them,” per the officer.

Congressman Murphy seemed less convinced of the innocuousness of it all in a statement sent to The Incline last week. In it, the eight-term congressman linked the thefts to an “ongoing pattern of harassment of staff, vandalism and threats” that he said has continued to escalate in Mt. Lebanon as of late.

This includes an incident at the same office in July, in which someone wrote the word “Filth” in red paint across 8 or 10 feet of wall space and the word “rot” twice on the office’s glass front door. The criminal complaint didn’t indicate that the graffiti and newspaper thefts are related, and Cox’s arresting officer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Cox, meanwhile, had accusations of his own to lob at Murphy in speaking with The Incline from the Allegheny County Department of Court Records, where he works as a clerk. Cox also lives in Mt. Lebanon and said he often passes the congressman’s office on Sunday strolls through the neighborhood.

“On my grandmother’s grave, it had nothing to do with politics,” he said via phone, “and the fact that people are trying to make it out to be about politics upsets me.”

“[Murphy] will try to play it up like it was some conspiracy, because he’s gonna have competition in the fall, but God as my witness, my only reason for taking [the papers] was that no one was picking them up. There was no ulterior motive here, no motive except getting a free newspaper.”

Cox continued, “It just became a habit. I was justified in my mind. … It’s embarrassing because of my committee involvement, but on the weekend when I’m walking by [Murphy’s office], I’m not thinking like a committee person.”

Cox said he remains a committee person and that while he considered drafting his resignation letter as the charge was filed, he was talked out of it by a friend. It’s also clear that he’s no fan of Murphy. The phrase “crappy panderer” was used once or twice in reference to him during the course of our conversation.

But Cox insists the congressman’s office wasn’t targeted, but rather conveniently situated and unlikely to notice — or so he thought.

“The office was closed and the paper would have been no good on Monday. What do you think the chance of them wanting to read Sunday’s paper on Monday is? The bottom line is I shouldn’t have [taken the papers], but I’m not going into someone’s yard and stealing from a private residence.”

Meanwhile, at the Mt. Lebanon Democratic Committee, Chair Michelle Zmijanac declined to comment on the case when reached by The Incline, saying she wasn’t familiar with the particulars.

Murphy’s office also declined comment beyond the written statement he provided. That statement concludes with Murphy pledging to continue meeting with his constituents in places like Mt. Lebanon while providing them with “a safe environment” in which to do so.

As for Cox, he’s been summoned to appear in October — on a single misdemeanor charge of theft by unlawful taking — at Mt. Lebanon magisterial district court. He’s hopeful the charge will be reduced.

And while this case matters little in the scheme of American or even regional politics, it somehow captures the current political climate better than any barometer ever could: the acrimony, the dueling narratives, the well-worn spite. This is 2017.