Montco commissioner Joe Hoeffel subpoenaed for possible violation of Sunshine Act

 

COURTHOUSE — Montgomery County officials have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating accusations that two commissioners violated the state Sunshine Act, according to anonymous sources. The District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on grand jury involvement in the case or whether prosecutors were looking into pay-to-play allegations that have dogged Republican Commissioner Chairman James R. Matthews for nearly a year.

Matthews and Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel, a Democrat, were accused last week of discussing government business at Tuesday breakfast meetings at Jem Restaurant in East Norriton with county Solicitor Barry Miller and Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Maza.

On two occasions, a reporter eavesdropped on the commissioners at the breakfasts and took notes, confirming the men were talking about county business. Soon after the story was reported, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman revealed she was investigating the breakfast meetings.

After word leaked that officials were served grand jury subpoenas this week, a reporter called Matthews and Hoeffel Wednesday evening to ask if they were served. “No comment” was Hoeffel’s reply; Matthews denied he had received a subpoena.

“No, I did not,” he said. “And I don’t know of anyone who did either.”

Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. adamantly refused to discuss it.

Accusations surrounding Matthews’ campaign contributions surfaced in December 2009 after it was learned executives of the consulting firm, CBIZ, which had been awarded no-bid contracts for at least a decade, had contributed thousands of dollars to Matthews and then-commissioner candidate Hoeffel’s political campaigns in 2007.

However, none of the CBIZ officials made donations to Castor, Matthews’ reluctant Republican running mate. Castor, a former county DA, garnered the most votes in the 2007 commissioners race.

Weeks after the election, Matthews and Hoeffel held a press conference to announce they’d formed a bi-partisan coalition, which stunned county political observers. Hoeffel’s Democrat running mate, then commissioner Ruth S. Damsker, lost her bid for reelection.

Since taking office in 2008, Matthews and Hoeffel typically voted alike on major issues often leaving their colleague to cast a lone “no” vote. The two voted Matthews chairman and shut Castor out. Matthews also got Hoeffel’s support to appoint Barry Miller as county solicitor, which Castor opposed.

Later that same year, The Montgomery County Republican Committee censured Matthews for allying with Hoeffel and shutting out Castor.

CBIZ has acted as the county’s health care consultant for at least a decade and was financially compensated by Independence Blue Cross for placing the insurer as the county’s health benefits administrator this year. The insurer covered county workers in the past, but reportedly lost $6 million in 2009 and refused to provide further coverage, according to Matthews. As a result, Matthews and Hoeffel voted to have the county self-insure its employees.

Earlier this year, reports stated that since 2006, CBIZ executives had contributed a total of $24,463 to Matthew’s political campaign coffers. In 2007, contributions totaled $14,875, with five officials making monetary contributions adding up to $12,375 on Oct. 9, 2007, less than a month before the election, according to campaign finance reports.

Just 12 days earlier, CBIZ gave the Damsker-Hoeffel campaign five equal contributions adding up to $12,500. However, Castor, who was favored to win a seat on the board, was apparently not on the consultant’s donor’s list.

On Feb. 12, 2008, CBIZ senior executive F. Bruce Walter gave Matthews, by then the commissioners chairman, a $1,000 campaign donation. Three months later, Walter gave $200 to Hoeffel’s campaign, according to 2008 campaign records.

However, a search through Castor’s 2007 campaign finance reports showed no donations from the firm’s officials.

A Norristown paper filed a second open records request on Dec. 22 seeking information related to the request for proposal, or RFP, seeking health insurance providers to cover county employees; however, the Norristown publication received only e-mail messages, letters, tables, a benefits renewal proposal naming insurers offering to act as third-party administrator for a health care plan and a “historical overview” of the county’s health plans.

The newspaper also requested a resolution or contract showing the county authorized CBIZ to act on the county’s behalf, but none was ever produced.

Walter, too, refused to provide Castor with a copy of the RFP when he requested one last December. As a result, the commissioner also filed an open records request with the county in an effort to determine if one existed. A Norristown newspaper has also submitted a written request for the RFP with Walter months ago, but never received a reply.

In 2010, the county privatized day care operations for employees’ children, selecting Tot Time Child Development Centers, which saved an estimated $300,000. However, Matthews was questioned when it was learned the owner of the business, Donna M. Fluehr, was a long-time friend of the chairman’s who had donated $7,161.55 to the “Friends of Jim Matthews” campaign between 2006 and 2009, according to campaign finance reports. None of the three other companies competing for the day care contract had made political contributions.

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