Suit over damages shows church’s role in Montco politics

Posted: November 03, 2013

Handcuffed and caught in the glare of a TV news camera, Walter Logan did the one thing a man in his position is expected to do: proclaim his innocence.

In 2009, the contractor was accused of bilking more than $370,000 from Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, which had hired him to build a family center. And Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman was particularly forceful in her condemnation.

"For someone to steal from a church is really very low," she told an interviewer.

Logan denied the crime. Now, nearly four years after he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, the 64-year-old contractor claims that Salem used its political connections to Ferman's office to pursue baseless charges against him. In a civil case poised for trial in the coming months, Logan says he deserves millions of dollars for being wrongfully prosecuted and having his name ruined.

Ferman, a second-term prosecutor and frequently mentioned prospect for higher office, calls Logan's allegations "offensive" and preposterous.

But late this summer, Logan's claim got a boost. In an opinion clearing the case for trial, U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner said the evidence suggests county authorities may have "acted with reckless disregard for the truth." He was equally critical of the church and its lawyers.

"Unfortunately, in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the contractual dispute, Salem and its legal counsel pursued questionable criminal charges against Logan," Joyner wrote.

The judge also found:

High-profile Salem member Garrett Page, a County Court judge who served then as the county's treasurer, urged Ferman to pursue a criminal investigation. Both he and Oscar Vance, the county's chief detective, kept close tabs on the case.

County authorities cooperated extensively with Salem's legal team in building their case, relying almost entirely on church-provided evidence. They allowed its lawyers to rewrite the charging documents and scheduled the timing of Logan's arrest to benefit the church financially.

Logan and his site manager, Lester Mack, remained under prosecution well after arbitration had settled the contract dispute in their favor.

Mack died of colon cancer in 2011. His family still wants justice.

"This is a very sad story," Dion Rassias, a lawyer for his estate, said in court filings, "about the abuse of power, political friendships, manipulation, and deceit."  

No thefts

Nearly everyone involved can now agree on one point: Logan and Mack did not steal from the church.

The theft charges against them were dropped nearly a year after they were filed, and an independent arbitrator found that it was Salem that owed them money in their dispute over the family center.

But when it comes to assessing blame for their prosecution, fingers point in all directions. Gerald Dugan, a lawyer representing Ferman and Mary Anders, the case's lead investigator, argued in court filings that the civil case was less about malicious prosecution than "a lack of sufficient understanding of the construction industry and perhaps a naïveté regarding how the accounting for the project worked."

"What is clear," he added, "is that Detective Anders had a sincere belief that crimes had been committed."

Vance, Page, Anders, and Salem have declined to comment.

Ferman did not respond directly to interview requests. Instead, an assistant prosecutor declined comment on her behalf, citing the ongoing case.

In a February deposition, Ferman said: "I have never in any case allowed any individual to exert any influence of an improper nature over me. It's an offensive accusation." 

Close ties

Salem, founded in 1884, has long held close ties to the county's elite, attorneys for Logan and Mack claim. In addition to high-profile members like Vance and Page, who serves as a deacon, its current pastor, Marshall Mitchell, once worked as a political aide to former U.S. Reps. William H. Gray III (D., Pa.) and Floyd Flake (D., N.Y.).

Vance, a longtime lawman who retired last year after a 49-year career with the county, credits a former pastor with landing him his job in 1963.

Those ties between the church off Old York Road and the county are where Logan's troubles began, his lawyers say.

In 2007, Salem abruptly pulled out of the $3.2 million family center project with Logan's firm, the Delta Organization.

Delta, which was based in Phoenixville, Chester County, sued for groundless termination and claimed Salem still owed the company $213,000. Salem maintained that Logan failed to pay his subcontractors and said Delta owed the church money.

As the parties took their civil fight to arbitration in 2007, Salem's legal counsel, the Doylestown firm of Eastburn & Gray, devised a strategy of filing a criminal claim against Logan as leverage to force him to settle.

In a series of March 2008 e-mails filed as evidence in the current suit, Eastburn lawyers describe the plan as risky. One, Timothy Caum, acknowledged that pressing charges against Logan might "be a stretch."

Still, Page, head of the church's steering committee, gave "the green light to approach the D.A." in an e-mail that year.

Within weeks, Page and the church's lawyers were meeting with Ferman. They claimed Delta had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars it owed its subcontractors for work, leaving Salem on the hook.

Recalling that meeting during her deposition this year, Ferman said it was not unusual for her to meet one on one with public officials reporting what they believe to be illegal activity.

In this case, she said, she did as she always does: Refer the matter to county detectives to determine whether a crime had occurred. From there, she maintained, she had very little involvement in the case.

Vance was also leading the office tasked to investigate it.

The chief maintained in his own deposition in March that he recused himself.

Yet Anders, his detective, told lawyers that Vance had e-mailed her early on to make sure she knew he was a Salem member and would be keeping an eye on the case, court records show.

Page, the county treasurer, remained in the background but received constant updates from an Eastburn lawyer who was not shy about using her client's connections, according to court filings.

When the investigation appeared to stall later that year, attorney Jane Leopold-Leventhal wrote to Page about attempts to speed it up.

"I only used your name in the softest way possible," she wrote, according to an e-mail that has become part of the case file. "It was effective. Let's leave it at that."

Both men later said they never tried to influence the case's outcome. 

Frequent consultation

Evidence in the records suggests Leopold-Leventhal took full advantage of her access to Anders. She and the detective consulted frequently, starting with a meeting in 2008, when she handed off a binder full of material the church had compiled against Logan.

That file included a report, drafted by a church accountant, that concluded that Delta owed Salem money. The document - marked preliminary and "for discussion purposes only" - formed the basis for many of the charges filed against the contractors, Joyner noted in his ruling.

E-mails from Anders, a child sex-crimes specialist, suggest she felt overwhelmed by the complex financial investigation and turned to Leopold-Leventhal for advice on understanding Salem's contract with Delta.

"It sounds a bit confusing to the 'lay' person/detective!" she wrote in one September 2008 exchange.

As the investigation wore on, she turned to Salem's lawyer to review and revise official documents used in Logan's prosecution, including search warrant affidavits for Delta's bank records and the probable-cause affidavit for his arrest.

"I don't usually ask victims (or their attorneys) to help me with the PC!" Anders wrote to the lawyer weeks later.

Much of the material Leopold-Leventhal added was inaccurate and slanted in the church's favor, the judge found, including the missing fact that Salem had failed to pay Delta the money needed to pay its subcontractors. That key finding would later sway the arbitration case.

Still, Anders defended her decision to cooperate with Salem's lawyer. Logan and his site manager, Mack, were arrested in January 2009 on counts ranging from theft to deceptive business practices, felonies that would carry prison terms.

Four months later, the contract dispute was resolved in Delta's favor. The civil arbitrator ruled that Salem had violated its contract and owed Logan's firm more than $150,000 in damages.

The criminal cases against Logan and Mack soon fell apart.

Two months later, the charges were formally dropped. 

Pointing fingers

Should someone shoulder the blame for the outcome?

In their legal papers, Salem, Ferman, and Anders have all pointed their fingers at the lawyers of Eastburn & Gray, who they say misled them throughout.

The law firm reached a confidential settlement with Logan and Mack and has declined to discuss it.

Mark Tanner, who will represent Logan if the case makes it to trial, maintains in court filings they all share fault.

Logan's run-in with Salem and county authorities destroyed his good name and brought his business to near ruin, the lawyer said. He has since changed his company's name and left the construction business.

Tanner declined an interview request, but in an e-mail last week, he said: "Walter Logan looks forward to the opportunity to clear his name."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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