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Former Montco GOP chief charged with rape

The former chairman of Montgomery County's Republican Party was charged Tuesday with drugging a female employee of his Lansdale law firm and raping her while she was unconscious.

Robert Kerns. (Source:
Robert Kerns. (Source: more

The former chairman of Montgomery County's Republican Party was charged Tuesday with drugging a female employee of his Lansdale law firm and raping her while she was unconscious.

Robert J. Kerns, 66, surrendered to county detectives Tuesday morning and was expected to be released after posting a portion of the $1 million bail. He faces 19 counts, including rape, sexual assault, tampering with evidence, and lying to authorities.

The charges followed weeks of investigation and represented a spectacular downfall for a power broker who led the county GOP for five years.

Less than a month ago, Kerns shared the spotlight at a party gathering with Gov. Corbett. On Tuesday, he was escorted in handcuffs from court after a county grand jury portrayed him as a "manipulative and predatory" rapist.

In its 23-page report, the panel described in detail how Kerns allegedly plotted to assault the 51-year-old woman after she told colleagues at an Oct. 25 office party that she may have had too much alcohol.

Kerns, they said, offered the woman a ride, gave her wine laced with the sleep drug Ambien, and allegedly raped her in his car and assaulted her a second time at her home.

"I give great credit to the victim in this case," District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman told reporters at a news conference in Norristown. "She was extremely courageous in coming forward."

The woman took herself to a hospital within days to be examined. She reported the allegation to Upper Merion police on Oct. 31.

"I didn't know if I could go through it. I didn't know if I could put my family through it," she later told county detectives, citing Kerns' prominence, according to the grand jury report. "I am worried I could go through the whole process and he could just walk away. I felt I had an obligation to protect others from having it happen to them."

Kerns said nothing during his arraignment Tuesday, according to his lawyer, and nothing afterward to reporters. The lawyer, Brian McMonagle, said Kerns "vehemently denies" the allegations. He said Kerns was incapable of rape or lacing a drink.

"These allegations are nothing more than allegations" that will be proved false, McMonagle said.

In an earlier interview with law-enforcement authorities, Kerns denied any sexual contact with the woman, the grand jury report said.

Ferman did not identify the accuser. The report said she was a part-time employee who began working at Kerns' firm in October 2012. She has not returned there since the alleged attack, according to the court documents.

The grand jury report described the party as a "post-workday celebration party" for a lawyer at Kerns' firm who had passed the Pennsylvania bar exam. The party was at Radice, a restaurant on West DeKalb Pike in Whitpain Township.

As she prepared to leave, the woman told colleagues she planned to go shopping at the King of Prussia mall, but was not sure she should drive because of the wine and Limoncello she had been drinking.

According to the grand jury, Kerns, who is married, "began to hatch his plan to drug, rape, and sexually assault the victim as soon as he heard the victim mention to their colleagues that she was planning to go shopping after the celebration and that her husband was out of town on a business trip."

He allegedly offered her a ride to the mall. Before leaving the restaurant, the bartender told authorities, Kerns bought a screw-top bottle of Chardonnay for $68 and was given two wine glasses to take with him.

The woman and Kerns left the party about 6 p.m. in his Mercedes-Benz, according to the court filing. While driving, Kerns suggested that she pour a glass of wine - the bottle had been opened - for each of them.

Kerns allegedly had put Ambien and possibly other substances into the bottle of wine by then, the grand jury found. The woman filled glasses for Kerns and herself, though Kerns allegedly did not drink his.

The report said the alleged victim had not been impaired by the alcohol she drank at the restaurant and was still able to "fully function, communicate, and walk on her own."

But she soon lost consciousness, the grand jury concluded. It's not clear when or why their destination changed, but Kerns then allegedly drove the woman toward her home.

"At some point between the time she drank the wine provided by Kerns and lost consciousness and the time she regained her memory as they entered her neighborhood, the victim has a vague memory of her head up against the car window and pushing Kerns away," its report said.

At that point, the grand jury said, Kerns "began to forcibly and violently violate her body while she was unconscious," leaving visible wounds and bruises on her body.

When they reached her house, Kerns allegedly helped her inside. He assaulted her again after she collapsed onto her bed, fully clothed, the grand jury said.

Forensic testing later found DNA matching Kerns' on the victim's underwear, according to the grand jury. Tests also showed Ambien in her urine.

On Oct. 27, the woman went to Grand View Hospital in Sellersville, where she gave blood and urine samples and had an internal examination. She then was sent to Abington Memorial Hospital, where she was examined again and had tests run to see whether she had been sexually assaulted.

On Oct. 31, she filed a report with the Upper Merion police.

For weeks, there had been whispers and rumblings among party members about the investigation. On Nov. 14, Kerns resigned as GOP committee chairman.

Ferman, a Republican, said she had initially referred the case to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest. Kane's office said it could not pursue the case unless there was an established conflict of interest. Ferman said there was not one.

"I'm not uncomfortable pursuing the case," she said Tuesday. She declined to offer an opinion on the allegations.

The arraignment before District Judge Robert M. Sobeck lasted about a minute, said Kerns' attorney.

Deputy District Attorney Samantha L.R. Cauffman, who is handling the case, said the bail conditions prohibited Kerns from drinking alcohol or going into restaurants where alcohol was served, required random alcohol testing, and banned him from any contact with the alleged victim or her family.

"It's a very sad day," former County Commissioner James R. Matthews said Tuesday. "I've known Bob for a very long time, and it's a sad time for his family and his firm . . . and the alleged victim."

John Keleman, acting executive director of the county's GOP committee, would not comment on the allegations except to note they had nothing to do with the committee.

Kerns lives in North Wales and has three adult children. A partner in the firm of Kerns, Pearlstine, Onorato & Hladik, he also was solicitor for Upper Gwynedd, West Norriton, and Trappe, and the Police Chiefs Association of Montgomery County.