Pennsylvania DA accused of sexually assaulting clients on desk while serving as defense attorney

TOWANDA, Pa. — A Pennsylvania prosecutor has been accused of sexually assaulting several of his clients on his desk back when he was a defense attorney, the state attorney general announced Wednesday.

A grand jury indicted Chad Michael Salsman, 44, of Wyalusing, on three separate charges of sexual assault, five counts of indecent assault, twelve counts of intimidation of a witness or victim, one count of obstruction of justice and one count of prostitution, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Salsman, a Republican, has served as the Bradford County District Attorney since January 2020. State records show he has been an attorney in Pennsylvania since 2001.

His campaign website shows he is married and has three young daughters.

“My daughters are the reasons I am seeking this office,” Salsman said on the site. “I want both my family and yours to feel safe living in Bradford County.”

Watch Salsman being led out of court in handcuffs Thursday, courtesy of WBRE in Wilkes-Barre.

Prosecutors accuse Salsman of doing the complete opposite for at least five of the women he represented as a defense attorney.

There were also “many other women (who) were placed in the same position, (but) those events occurred outside the statute of limitations,” and their cases could not be included for criminal charges, authorities said.

“The details of these assaults are incredibly disturbing, and they are criminal,” Shapiro said during a news conference announcing the charges. “We know that they strike even deeper because Mr. Salsman abused his position of authority as a lawyer, and as a public official here in this county.

“The victims in this case were relying on him to be their advocate, to represent them at a time when they felt powerless. Instead, they ended up being preyed upon.”

As Salsman was let in handcuffs out of the Magisterial District Court in Towanda on Wednesday, reporters shouted questions at him. He was silent except for two words.

“I’m innocent,” Salsman told a reporter.

The Associated Press reported that Salsman’s attorney, Sam Stretton, also denied the allegations against his client.

“And my investigation seems to support that proposition,” Stretton said. “So we will vigorously try this case. This will not be a plea.”

“There was never any grabbing, improper touching. There was never anything of that nature. Never any intimidation.”

According to Shapiro, Salsman used his position and power to coerce the victims into performing sex acts upon him.

“He would bring them into his private office, under the guise of discussing their case, and use his knowledge of his clients’ vulnerabilities to negate their consent and sexually assault them,” a news release from Shapiro’s office stated.

Salsman’s private office, which is located next door to the Towanda Police Department, was raided in December by police officers looking for evidence in the grand jury investigation.

The attorney general said that Salsman chose his victims because of their vulnerability.

“(Salsman) picked these victims because they didn’t have another choice, because he thought they would be easy to silence,” Shapiro said Wednesday. “And likely, they would be less believed if they ever came forward.”

Grand jurors also spoke out about the victims’ situations in their report.

“Many of Salsman’s clients struggled with addictions, had a history of being sexually abused or suffered from other vulnerabilities, which Salsman exploited,” the grand jurors wrote.

‘Eerie’ similarities

A probable cause affidavit in the case indicates that Salsman was under investigation even before he took office. The case was referred to the grand jury in late 2019 following a referral to the AG’s office by then-Bradford County District Attorney Daniel Barrett, who cited a conflict of interest.

Barrett, who had served as county prosecutor since 2007, retired as Salsman campaigned against one of Barrett’s assistants, Assistant District Attorney Albert Ondrey, for the office’s top post.

Shapiro said the testimony from the victims indicated that Salsman “repeatedly leveraged his power over his victims, who he counseled in criminal and child custody cases, by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, exploiting them, and then forcing them into submission and silence.”

“One victim who sought Salsman’s help in a child custody case was pressured into engaging in sexual acts in exchange for his legal services,” the AG’s statement read. “When testifying before the grand jury, she said that there was nothing more important to her than securing the custody of her children.”

In another case, Salsman encountered a woman who had been victimized by her boyfriend and another man, both of whom Salsman had represented at trial.

“She confided this history of sexual violence to Salsman, who said nothing,” Shapiro stated. “On a subsequent visit, Salsman instructed the victim to enter through the back private entrance into his office and instructed her to undress.

“The victim testified that she complied with the request out of fear, and after the unwanted sexual encounter, he threatened to ruin her life if she told anyone.”

Each of the alleged victims detailed for grand jurors the same pattern of coercion and sexual violence. One after one, the women unknowingly corroborated one another’s testimony with details only the alleged victims could know.

“The similarities in these cases that the grand jurors heard are very eerie,” Shapiro said Wednesday. “From who he targeted and how he pressured them, to where the assaults took place and what he ordered them to do.”

Watch Wednesday’s news conference below.

Salsman would intimidate the women and coerce them into sexual acts, many that played out on top of his desk. Afterward, he would instruct them to go into his office bathroom and “clean up” using paper towels and cleaning wipes, the AG said.

He told each of the women to tell no one what he had done to them.

Employees of Salsman testified that their boss would meet with female clients alone and would hide the details of their files even from his own staff.

“They also told the grand jury that Salsman had a long-standing policy of having his secretaries play music, run noise machines or run the air conditioner to drown out the sounds of his meetings with clients,” Shapiro’s news release said. “Staff also noted that they repeatedly saw female clients leave his office in tears.”

Salsman is accused of calling a former staffer to his office during the grand jury investigation and, as district attorney, demanding that she report to him any information she learned during her appearance before the jurors.

The victims

One victim, identified only as L.J., hired Salsman in 2017 to represent her on charges of harassment and possession of drug paraphernalia. As payment, he demanded nude photos of the woman, as well as videos of her having sex with her girlfriend.

In numerous meetings, he grabbed the woman without permission. Eventually, he forcibly had sex with her, the probable cause affidavit states.

When her girlfriend texted her during the sexual assault, wondering what was taking so long, the woman kept mum out of shame. She and her girlfriend both testified about how she went home, in obvious distress, after the meeting with Salsman and immediately showered.

“My girlfriend kept asking me what was so wrong and why I was quiet,” L.J. testified. “I told her nothing. I was fine. I wouldn’t tell her. She knew something wasn’t right.”

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That December, another alleged victim identified as H.H. found herself becoming a client of Salsman, who was appointed by the court to represent her in a child custody matter. The attorney would make lewd comments and grope her under the table in open court.

He asked her for sex but she refused. He then demanded she send videos of her having sex with someone else, but she again refused.

“Salsman told her that he needed naked pictures because he was not being adequately compensated for his representation,” the affidavit states. “At that point, H.H. felt she had no choice and sent nude pictures to Salsman.”

Salsman, in turn, once sent H.H. a video of a naked woman in a bathtub. The grand jurors were able to identify that woman, who also testified.

The woman told the grand jury that she had been suffering from a death in her family, at which point Salsman reached out to offer comfort. His comfort soon vanished when he began asking for nude photos and videos.

She ultimately sent him the bathtub video, which he shared with H.H. without the woman’s permission. That victim’s relationship to the attorney was not clear.

Read the probable cause affidavit and grand jury report below.

In her testimony, H.H. told the grand jury that along with demanding inappropriate materials from her, he also revealed a “steady stream” of confidential information about his clients. That stream included details of their cases and, when applicable, nude pictures of them.

The then-defense lawyer justified his actions by complaining about his court-appointed status on her case.

“I don’t get paid for this. I do everything for free,” he told H.H.

That was a lie.

Taxpayers paid Salsman a total of $2,115 for his representation of the woman, the affidavit states.

Salsman further attempted to intimidate H.H., who was concerned about his abilities to represent her, by sending her a photo of her home that he apparently took as he stood outside.

H.H. eventually obtained a different lawyer and, in April 2019, went to Salsman’s office for her files. She testified that Salsman forced himself on her, but she was able to kick him and escape with the documents, the court records show.

H.H. ultimately began working with authorities once the investigation into Salsman was underway. Wearing a recording device monitored by Pennsylvania State Police investigators, she met with Salsman, who volunteered legal advice related to the investigation.

This was despite H.H. already having an attorney and Salsman being the target of the investigation, the affidavit states. It was also after Salsman was sworn in as district attorney, making him a law enforcement official.

The new district attorney advised Salsman not to cooperate with the investigation, which he labeled a “witchhunt” despite his unsuccessful assault on H.H. when she decided to change attorneys, according to the document.

A.M. was 19 years old when she first hired Salsman on child custody matters. He also represented her boyfriend and, in both incidents, they paid him for the services he provided.

She had to seek his help again in May 2018, when she had been arrested for drunken driving. Unemployed for the previous six months, A.M could not afford to pay him that time, the affidavit alleges.

Salsman immediately began “coming onto her” and telling her “his wife wasn’t giving him what he needed at home,” she testified. He would grope her during legal meetings without consent.

Facing the prospect of jail time, A.M. felt she was out of options, the affidavit states.

“He would always remove the stuff on his desk and he would have sex with me there,” she testified. “And then I would have to go into the bathroom and clean before I left.”

As her case — and the abuse — continued, Salsman told A.M. she would come out all right with her DUI case and said she should make random payments “here and there” so his secretary did not get suspicious. She paid almost no cash for his legal services.

When the investigation into Salsman was launched, he told her not to say anything about what was going on — and he promised he could help her once he was district attorney.

“He told me once he got into the DA’s position, that everything I owed him was no longer an issue and it would be harder for him to have me come see him with him being DA,” A.M testified.

Salsman had sex with her one last time after becoming district attorney, she said.

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The fourth known victim, identified as L.W., was the client who testified that Salsman had represented both her boyfriend and another man who had previously raped L.W.

When she informed him his former client had raped her, Salsman had no visible reaction, the woman said.

L.W. encountered Salsman multiple times during the course of her boyfriend’s case. The attorney also hired her and her boyfriend to do remodeling work on his law office, and at one point he loaned L.W. some money.

When she went to his office in October 2018 to make her final payment on the loan, he demanded that she undress. Recalling the violence of her prior sexual assault, she was “too afraid to resist again,” the woman testified.

After allegedly assaulting her, Salsman instructed her to go into his bathroom and clean up.

“Later, he contacted her and told her not to breathe a word to anyone, or he would ruin her life,” the affidavit states.

In late 2018, a woman identified as N.A. retained Salsman to represent her in a battle for custody of her children. As with the other alleged victims, Salsman is accused of touching her inappropriately during court proceedings and demanding nude photos.

“I was getting up to leave and he touched my breast,” the woman testified. “I backed up and just kind of … I was taken … I didn’t know how to respond to that.”

Salsman told her she could compensate him for his work by sleeping with him.

“I could slam your (derogatory term for vagina) and you wouldn’t have to pay,” he allegedly told her.

N.A. began doing as he asked but when it “soured,” Salsman became aggressive and threatening, the affidavit states.

Amid the alleged sexual abuse of his clients, Salsman was also having a consensual, ongoing relationship with a female staffer, according to court documents.

The next steps

Salsman waived a preliminary hearing in the case on Wednesday. He was booked into the Bradford County Jail, where he later posted 10% of his $500,000 bail and was released.

Meanwhile, he remains the county’s district attorney. Shapiro said that his political future lies with Bradford County residents, as well as a board that investigates criminal allegations against attorneys.

Stretton told the AP he and his client are going to seek a quick trial.

“If we win, we win. If we lose, of course there’s not much we can do to save his position,” the defense attorney said.

Shapiro said he believes Salsman can no longer perform the duties of his office.

“He has compromised the sacred public trust, and he is not fit to serve as district attorney,” Shapiro said. “He is not fit to serve as the chief law enforcement official in this county.”