Jon Campisi Jan. 6, 2012, 9:06am

The president judge of Montgomery County’s Common Pleas Court has ordered Court Administrator Michael R. Kehs to locate an out-of-county magisterial district judge to preside over the pending preliminary hearing for James Matthews, the county commissioner charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury investigating claims of impropriety.

In an order released Tuesday, President Judge William J. Furber directed court officials to assign the out-of-county judge to avoid any potential conflict of interest that could arise in the Matthews case given the small world of Montgomery County politics.

In a brief phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record Thursday morning, Assistant to the Court Administrator Gina A. Eberhardt confirmed the judicial order.

“I did request that,” Eberhardt said. “I put that through myself.”

Matthews, well-known in local political circles – he’s also the brother of Chris Matthews, the national news figure who hosts a show on MSNBC – was a sitting county commissioner when he was arrested on Dec. 6 and charged with perjury.

The charges stemmed from an 18-month investigation handled by a grand jury that was convened to probe allegations of secret commissioners’ meetings and other alleged ethical lapses.

The grand jury concluded that none of the activities rose to the level of criminal offenses, but Matthews did end up getting charged with lying during his testimony to the grand jury.

Matthews decided against running for another term, and he and former co-commissioner Joseph Hoeffel were recently replaced by former State Rep. Josh Shapiro and former Whitemarsh Township supervisor Leslie Richards, two Democrats who made history when they helped the Democratic Party take control of the suburban Philadelphia county for the first time since the late 1800s.

After his arrest, local news outlets quoted Matthews as saying he felt the charges against him were “silly.”

Nevertheless, the former county commissioner will have to answer to the charges in court.

A date for the preliminary hearing, however, has not yet been set.

The proceeding had originally been scheduled for Jan. 17 before District Judge Margaret Hunsicker in Norristown, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, but that will most likely change given the recent judicial order.

Norristown serves as the county seat.

Eberhardt, the assistant to county Court Administrator Kehs, said the president judge’s order came after county prosecutors requested the move given Matthews’ status in the community.

The out-of-county judge will be chosen by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Montgomery County prosecutor John N. Gradel told the Philadelphia Inquirer that should the case proceed to Common Pleas Court, another out-of-county judge would also likely be assigned to replace a Montgomery County jurist.

“Because of the status of the defendant, the chances are that every judge and district [judge in Montgomery County] has some kind of connection to him,” Gradel told the newspaper Thursday. “No matter how the justice ruled, there would be an attack from some direction.”

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