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A sudden silence from Matthews

For once, Montgomery County Commissioner James R. Matthews has nothing to say.

For once, Montgomery County Commissioner James R. Matthews has nothing to say.

After four years of swapping public insults with political rival and fellow Republican Bruce L. Castor Jr., the outspoken former chairman of Pennsylvania's third-largest county has been rendered silent by his arrest Tuesday on perjury charges.

Citing the advice of his attorney, Matthews has declined to comment on the accusations. But while Matthews may keep mum for now, he has responded publicly and frequently over the last four years to many of the allegations made against him in a 69-page grand jury report.

His answers - made at the county's twice-a-month commissioners meetings - have often demonstrated the same brusque dismissals of criticism that grand jurors described as arrogance.

They show that even as investigators closed in around him, Matthews forcefully defended himself, denying he had done anything wrong.

"Don't throw hypocrisy at me - not when I'm using my dollars from my friends and supporters," he berated one reporter, when asked at a public meeting last year about the propriety of using campaign donations to pay for his personal car. "That's trash."

Specifically, Matthews stands charged with lying under oath about his prior business relationship with a title insurance firm that later received government contracts.

While opting not to press charges, the grand jury also accused the county government of recklessly spending taxpayer money, awarding plum positions to friends, and doling out contracts to contributors.

The commissioner denied all of the allegations at his arraignment last week and pointed to those prior statements at the county's meetings - which have at times played out more like boxing matches than typical government proceedings.

For example, Castor, at a 2008 meeting, questioned why he had to read in the newspapers, instead of hearing it directly from his colleagues, that a political ally of Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III was being considered for a government job.

Typical fare

"That is trite and uninformed," Matthews responded. "It's the chairman's prerogative. The chairman is chairman and has his choice."

Such was the typical fare. Ever since Matthews split from his GOP ticket mate and aligned with Hoeffel, the board's Democrat, in 2008, Castor and Matthews have made no effort to hide their hostility.

At an October 2010 meeting, Matthews referred to his fellow Republican as "a sick bastard." Castor said last week after his colleague's arrest: "He has a vastly inflated opinion of his own importance in the world. I think he's mentally ill."

Apart from hurling insults, Castor, a former district attorney, has used these biweekly platforms to publicly question Matthews' ethics - jabs only augmented by the commissioners' unusual habit of pausing for news media questions after every agenda item.

The board defends the practice as an effort to add an extra measure of openness to their dealings. In practice, though, questions from the county's aggressive press corps often act as a match in a political powder keg.

Questioned in March 2010 on whether the county's practice of awarding low-value contracts without first putting them up for bid violated local ordinances, Matthews lashed out:

"There's been exaggeration in some press accounts that illegalities were admitted," he said. "I will never admit that there was any illegality in our treatment of professional services."

He later hedged, saying, "It has been brought to our attention that we were not following the letter of the law, and we should tighten that up."

Grand jurors cited this volatile exchange in their report. Over and over again, the document refers to both Matthews' comments at meetings and the resulting coverage.

In November 2010, Matthews was asked about the lack of competition in awarding a contract to the Fort Washington firm Certified Abstract. When specifically questioned about his connection to the business, he responded: "I have never had any financial relationship whatsoever with" the company.

Grand jurors allege that Matthews threw a significant amount of business to the company from his private firm - Keegan Mortgage - and was a minor stakeholder in a separate venture with the business' owners.

Last week, Castor described his public attacks on Matthews as a canny strategy to attract the attention of law enforcement. As the county's former district attorney, he said, he knew that, had he directly gone to authorities himself, people would question his role in any investigation.

(Even so, Risa Vetri Ferman, Castor's former chief prosecutor and successor as district attorney, has borne some criticism for a perceived conflict of interest in the case. Both she and Castor maintain that he never had any influence.)

Ferman has declined to comment on the investigation, saying she would seek a judicial gag order. But sources familiar with the probe said that, with so many allegations floating around Matthews, they had no choice but to study them - no matter their source.

But Matthews kept talking.

In December 2010, a reporter for the Norristown Times-Herald challenged the commissioner on a series of breakfast meetings in which he, Hoeffel, and members of their senior staff were allegedly overheard discussing county business in apparent violation of the state's open-meetings act.

Although the commissioners denied violating any laws, Matthews jokingly dismissed the charge at the time.

"I'm ready to write the $100 check right now," he said, referring to the top fine for violating the Sunshine Act. He offered to pass out agendas for his next meal.

Treading lightly

Days later, Ferman made the unusual move of announcing a grand jury investigation into the breakfast meetings. Typically, such proceedings are held in secret.

But her announcement had an ulterior motive, said those familiar with the probe. For nine months prior, investigators had tread lightly while looking into Matthews' affairs, so as not to attract attention.

Now, they could pursue him more openly, hoping he and his associates would assume that their inquiries were related to the so-called Breakfastgate case.

And Matthews continued to talk.

According to the grand jury's report, Matthews discussed the Breakfastgate allegations with several witnesses, despite a judicial order to keep silent about the proceedings. When he realized the investigation's broader scope, he purportedly called at least one witness to warn her, the document alleges.

Under oath, Matthews purportedly told the panel he had never discussed the case and had next to no contact with the witness in question.

That - said Ferman at a news conference Tuesday - is what ultimately landed the commissioner in handcuffs.

While grand jurors concluded that much of his behavior was ethically suspect, they decided it did not break the law. Lying under oath, however?

"Had Commissioner Matthews come in here and simply told the truth," Ferman said, "we would not be here today."