Jon Campisi Dec. 7, 2011, 7:10am

The chairman of the Montgomery County, Pa. Board of Commissioners was arrested on perjury charges Tuesday, capping an 18-month grand jury investigation into the county’s three-member board.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman announced the arrest of James R. Matthews on her website.

According to the announcement, a grand jury was convened back in March 2010 as a result of investigative journalism and citizen complaints into the commissioners’ activities.

The grand jurors went on to investigate the office of the county’s top elected leaders until last month. A sealed report of their findings was issued in mid November; it was unsealed by supervising Judge William J. Furber and made public on Tuesday.

According to the district attorney’s announcement, the grand jury examined evidence regarding non-public meetings that were supposedly held between Matthews and fellow Commissioner Joseph Hoeffel during which county business was allegedly discussed.

The investigation turned up evidence that the pre-arranged meetings did, in fact, occur, and were held outside of the presence of the board’s third commissioner, Bruce Castor.

Castor, the former Montgomery County district attorney, and Matthews are both Republicans while Hoeffel, a former congressman, is the sole Democrat on the board.

Bad blood runs between Matthews and Castor, since, after Castor was elected in 2008, Matthews, who has been a commissioner since 1999, teamed up with Hoeffel in a power-sharing grab whereby they would run the board as chairman and vice chairman respectively.

Castor saw the move as a way to shut him out and the bad blood has made almost regular newspaper headlines in the region ever since, the commissioners’ meetings playing out like daytime television dramas.

In addition to the allegations over the secret meetings, the grand jury also investigated claims over potentially improper use of campaign funds by the commissioners, a lapse in procedures regarding contract bidding in the county’s open space program, (one of the most revered in the suburban Philadelphia region), and a potential conflict of interest violation on the part of Matthews.

The latter had to do with a business relationship between Matthews and Certified Abstract Company, which had been contracted to perform title insurance work for the county.

According to the district attorney’s announcement, the grand jury didn’t find sufficient evidence to show that there was an improper relationship between Matthews and the tile contractor, but it did discover that the commissioner misrepresented the business relationship on a statement of financial interest.

This finding will be forwarded to the state’s Ethics Committee.

It was the business relationship between the two that was the subject of testimony to the grand jury by Matthews back in October, the announcement states. The grand jury subsequently found that Matthews lied on several occasions during the course of his testimony, and it recommended perjury and false swearing charges be brought against the commissioner.

The grand jury found that “Matthews lied with such ease and frequency, that he acted as though, as Chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, he is above the law,” according to the report.

“We expect and deserve elected officials who not only do their jobs but also who scrupulously follow the law,” the grand jury’s report states. “Mr. Matthews’ persistent dishonest and deception serve only to undermine the public trust in the integrity of government officials.”

As for the non-public breakfast meetings, it was discovered that Matthews and Hoeffel would meet with county Solicitor Barry Miller and Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Maza in violation of the state’s Sunshine Act, which requires county business to be deliberated in public.

Despite finding no violations of the law, the grand jury, in its report, stated, “we feel that Montgomery County citizens have the right to expect transparency from their representatives.”

The grand jury recommended the state legislature change the punishment for violations of the Sunshine Act so as to discourage this type of activity from occurring, the district attorney’s announcement states.

The grand jury report states that Matthews made allegations of being the target of a politically motivated probe initiated by fellow Commissioner Castor, the former district attorney.

“They are out to get me,” said Matthews, who is the brother of Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s news program Hardball.

Matthews was arraigned on the criminal charges Tuesday morning before Norristown, Pa. Magisterial District Court Judge Margaret Hunsicker.

Photos in local media showed Matthews, hands cuffed in front of him, being led to the district court by Montgomery County detectives before a throng of news reporters.

According to his court docket sheet, Matthews was released on $50,000 unsecured bail.

He is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 16.

Last month, two Democrats – state Rep. Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards – made headlines when they were elected to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. It marked the first time the board has seen a Democratic majority since 1881.

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