'Breakfastgate' grand jury subpoenas Hoeffel, Matthews calendars

Posted: December 10, 2010

A grand jury has subpoenaed the calendars of two Montgomery County commissioners a week after a newspaper accused them of violating state open-meeting laws by reviewing county business over weekly breakfasts.

In a move that veteran defense lawyers called unusual, prosecutors gave Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III, a Democrat, just one day to turn over the records or face the possibility of arrest for contempt, according to several sources close to the investigation.

Hoeffel declined to comment. His Republican colleague James R. Matthews confirmed that he, too, had received a subpoena - and was given until Monday to comply.

"I think it's kind of silly . . . [but] she's doing what she has to do," Matthews said of the person leading the investigation, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman. Matthews said he would turn over the requested documents.

Also subpoenaed this week, the sources said, was the Norristown Times Herald. Reporter Jenny DeHuff allegedly overheard the elected officials discussing county business over breakfast on at least two occasions at an East Norriton diner.

The paper accused Matthews and Hoeffel of violating Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act at a county board meeting Dec. 1 and published a story about the breakfasts the next day.

Details of prosecutors' efforts to subpoena the paper this week could not immediately be learned. The editor was unavailable for comment late Thursday.

The allegations and resulting controversy unleashed a bevy of comments and explanations from the two commissioners last week, along with condemnation from the third man on the panel, who had not been invited to the breakfasts. By Thursday, that well of chatter had run dry.

Republican Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., Montgomery County's former district attorney, initially released a colorful statement condemning the breakfast meetings as another example of how Hoeffel and Matthews have excluded him since striking a power-sharing agreement in 2008.

This week, though, he declined to comment.

The District Attorney's Office - led by Ferman, who was first assistant to Castor when he was district attorney - also said little, citing its continuing probe.

Hoeffel and Matthews have said their weekly conversations usually consisted of nothing more than talk of sports, family, and mutual friends. They conceded, however, that they sometimes received briefings from county employees.

When contacted Thursday, Hoeffel declined to comment about the subpoena requesting his calendar of official duties and personal appointments - and about the tight deadline he was given to comply.

Sources close to the investigation said Hoeffel's lawyer, Frank Murphy, requested more time to review the documents but was rebuffed by prosecutors and the county judge overseeing the grand jury, Paul W. Tressler.

Several veteran white-collar defense lawyers called the 24-hour window surprising.

"That's extremely unusual," said Richard R. Harris, a partner in the Obermayer firm in Philadelphia. "I've had hundreds of clients receive subpoenas and never have been given just a few days to produce records, not even from the U.S. Justice Department. Typically, you get 10 days or two weeks, and then an extension if you need it."

Rocco Cipparone, a Haddon Heights defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said he often asks for more time - "usually because I'm so busy and the client needs time to get the records together," he said.

Before turning over the records, he said, a lawyer and a client have a right to discuss the nature of the records and whether they should challenge the subpoena.

"The only potential justification for demanding such a quick turnaround is if you fear someone might destroy the records," Cipparone said. "But frankly, if that's a serious concern, you would see a search warrant executed. Otherwise, demanding such a quick turn around seems unfair."

Matthews said Thursday that he had not yet retained an attorney. Hoeffel's lawyers - Murphy, of Norristown, and Jeffrey M. Lindy of Philadelphia - declined comment.

Violations of the Sunshine Act carry a maximum penalty of $100 plus the costs of prosecution.


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 610-313-8212 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

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