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Grand jury report unfair, Montco official says

Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d lashed out Thursday at what he called a "fundamentally unfair grand jury report" that harshly criticized county government and several employees.

Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman Joseph M. Hoeffel 3d lashed out Thursday at what he called a "fundamentally unfair grand jury report" that harshly criticized county government and several employees.

The 69-page document - which led to the arrest of Commissioner James R. Matthews last week - inaccurately describes county policies, "unfairly smears" top administrators, and ignores existing procedures in its calls for government reform, he said.

"How is it possible that the grand jury did not know about this inch-thick pile of documents?" the commissioner said Thursday while waving a stack of printed policies governing the county's open-space program. The department was one of many to be singled out by the panel for lax procedural oversight.

Hoeffel's comments came despite warnings that he limit his public statements about the report for fear that anything he said might be used against him as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

The grand jury report - which recommended Matthews' arrest on perjury charges - painted a portrait of a county government in disarray. Commissioners spent taxpayer funds recklessly, awarded government jobs to cronies, and doled out contracts to friends and supporters, the panel alleged.

The county's open-space program - supported by a $150 million bond referendum passed in 2003 - drew some of the heaviest fire. The panel noted that administrators seemed to follow no standard procedures in awarding grants for open-space projects and in at least one case doled out money to an organization that hadn't applied for it.

But Hoeffel balked Thursday, pointing to a stack of documents including grant applications and policy manuals, that he said addressed all of the grand jury's concerns.

"The open-space program is run by the finest staff that the county has," he said.

Hoeffel reserved his harshest criticism for the grand jury's findings on the county's contract-awarding process.

The panel called Hoeffel out as purportedly supporting a 2010 ordinance that loosened restrictions meant to promote competition among vendors bidding on county work.

But its report mischaracterized the significance of that vote, Hoeffel said.

After implementing a competitive bidding ordinance during his first stint on the commissioners' board in the '90's, Hoeffel said he returned to in 2008 to find that the process he set up had been ignored in his absence.

The 2010 vote cited by the grand jury was an attempt to reinforce the spirit of competitive bidding while making the policy more practical, he said.

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman waved off Hoeffel's criticisms.

"The grand jury report is a summary of its findings and conclusions," she said. "It does not offer a summary of every piece of evidence they heard and considered."

Hoeffel has previously criticized Ferman's handling of the investigation, saying she was too close to Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. - the third commissioner and Matthews' avowed political enemy - to fairly lead the probe. She was Castor's first assistant in the District Attorney's Office before his 2007 election to the commissioners' board.

That same year Matthews - Castor's running mate at the time - announced he was splitting from his fellow Republican to form a coalition with Hoeffel, a Democrat.

That alliance relegated Castor to the position of board contrarian, lobbing public verbal grenades at both his colleagues.

After Matthews' arrest, Hoeffel and Castor took a positive tone.

Both men joked and laughed with each other at a public meeting Wednesday. Matthews, meanwhile, sat mostly silent, sullenly poking at an iPad.

That brief honeymoon period appeared to be over Thursday.

Hoeffel rebuked Castor for saying "anyone associated with Matthews is in danger" after the dismissal of several department heads Wednesday.

"Your hatred of Jim Matthews and his hatred of you has hurt Montgomery County for four years," Hoeffel said. "This has got to stop."

Castor shot back. "You, Mr. Commissioner, are an abhorrence to Montgomery County," he said. "You enabled a bad man to do bad things."

Matthews - who is charged with allegedly lying about a prior relationship he had with a company that received government contracts - has maintained his innocence.