Berks County Senior District Judge Gloria W. Stitzel dismissed the perjury charge against former Montgomery County Commissioner James R. Matthews at his preliminary hearing Friday.
The dismissal came at the end of a four-hour hearing with defense attorney Jud Aaron arguing that Matthews’ alleged lies were not material to the grand jury investigation, and that the defendant did not violate a gag order prohibiting him from discussing the government corruption probe.
During the hearing, county Assistant District Attorney John Gradel and special prosecutor Antonetta Stancu questioned county Detectives Lt. Mark Bernstiel and Paul Bradbury, the only two witnesses, and played audiotape that allegedly caught Matthews lying about his true relationship with title insurer Certified Abstract Company.
When Aaron cross examined Bernstiel, pressing him to interpret Matthews’ grand jury transcripts, Gradel loudly objected to the line of questioning.
“The presentment speaks for itself,” he said.
On Nov. 10, 2010, at a county commissioners meeting, Matthews is asked by a reporter if he has a financial interest in the title company, but he claims to have no relationship.
“I have none,” he said.
And when pressed to explain why the title insurer was the only firm to respond to a request for proposal, the defendant insists he did not benefit monetarily from the vendor’s work.
“I derive nothing from Certified Abstract. Zero,” he said.
But at the time, Matthews’ family business Keegan Mortgage did business with the title company. And he was a shareholder in another title insurer, Charter Abstract, which was owned Jennifer McGuire, who also owned Certified Abstract.
“Are you suggesting there is something here not disclosed?” he asked the reporter.
The grand jury alleges the 63-year-old former commissioner also initially lied about the firm’s ownership while under oath on Oct. 5, 2011.
Prosecutors also accused the defendant of violating a court order prohibiting him from divulging any information of any kind about the grand jury probe.
However, investigators learned Matthews spoke to McGuire and her husband on the phone briefly acknowledging the investigation, even trying to call as she was meeting with a judge to be sworn in as a grand jury witness, according to the panel’s report.
Bradbury, who was also investigating the case, testified he served McGuire with a subpoena on Sept. 26, 2011, and she was “very friendly” and cooperative. And the same was evident when she was sworn in by a county judge the following day. During that meeting, her cellphone “vibrated” twice, though she did not answer it.
Later that day, after McGuire returned to her Fort Washington office, she spoke on the phone with Matthews, and after that time, her demeanor changed dramatically, Bradbury said.
“She was an emotional wreck,” Bradbury said. “After she received telephone calls from Mr. Matthews, she feared there was going to be retaliation against her.”
She reportedly told the detective that during her phone conversation with the commissioner, he was talked excitedly about “Breakfastgate” and “Castor,” referring to his fellow Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., who he blamed for the investigation. “Breakfastgate” was the name given to meetings Matthews had with then-Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel and other county staffers that prosecutors suspected violated the state’s Sunshine Act. Castor, the third commissioner, had been shunned by his colleagues since the beginning of the 2008 administration and was never at the breakfast meetings.
By the time she was ready to testify to the grand jury Oct. 5, 2011, Bradbury said, she signaled she was very reluctant to cooperate any longer with law enforcement.
“It took us awhile to calm her down,” he said. “She had come unravelled.”
But despite the defense’s argument that Matthews was not completely aware of the extent of the probe, a finding allegedly revealed he knew that the probe went beyond the Sunshine Act accusations.
“He swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I submit to you, your honor, that he did not,” said Stancu.
Matthews still faces one misdemeanor charge of false swearing.
Gradel said it would be up to District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman as to whether prosecutors will refile perjury charges. The Times Herald was unable to reach the DA for comment Friday night.