Inquirer Editorial: Suspect prosecution

Risa Vetri Ferman File
Risa Vetri Ferman File
Posted: November 09, 2013

When Jenkintown's Salem Baptist Church found itself on the wrong end of a legal dispute with a contractor, it turned to a higher power: the district attorney.

Montgomery County authorities appear to have been all too eager to intercede. They eventually charged, arrested, and publicly denounced the contractor, Walter Logan - despite a lack of evidence that he did anything wrong.

Court documents suggest the most generous possible understanding of the prosecution is that it grew out of rank incompetence within the District Attorney's Office. But, as The Inquirer's Jeremy Roebuck and Allison Steele reported this week, church members with influential county government positions also seem to have played a poisonous role in the case.

Church member Oscar Vance, for example, was the district attorney's chief of detectives at the time. Court documents show that rather than maintaining his distance from the prosecution, as his glaring conflict of interest should have dictated, Vance directed a subordinate to keep him "informed" of the case involving "my church," as he described it in an e-mail. A church attorney, Jane Leopold-Leventhal, suggested at one point that Vance's membership in the congregation would help the criminal case, and she seems to have worked unusually closely with the detective assigned to it, even helping her draft official documents.

In an August opinion finding that the contractor's malicious-prosecution lawsuit against county officials could proceed, U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner also noted the dubious role of church steering committee member Garrett Page, the county treasurer at the time. Page attended a meeting about the case with a church lawyer and the district attorney, Risa Vetri Ferman. Later, when the prosecution seemed to have stalled, church lawyer Leopold-Leventhal told Page in an e-mail that she had dropped his name "in the softest way possible" with the detective assigned to the case, adding, "It was effective."

It sure was. In 2009, Logan and an employee were arrested on charges of deceptive business practices and theft of more than $370,000 from Salem Baptist. "It is particularly despicable and outrageous to steal from a church," Ferman was quoted as saying at the time. The district attorney added that the contractor had "ripped off his subcontractors" and "pocketed the money for himself."

Just four months after these overheated official condemnations, an arbitrator found that the church actually owed Logan money. Then, following months of foot-dragging and nearly a year after the arrests, the county dropped all charges against Logan and his employee. Ruling on the subsequent lawsuit, Joyner noted that the case expired three days after Page, the church member and former county treasurer, was sworn in as a county judge.

"Unfortunately, in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the contractual dispute, Salem and its legal counsel pursued questionable criminal charges," Joyner wrote. It's even more unfortunate that the District Attorney's Office - a supposed advocate for public rather than private interests - proved so willing to pursue a non-crime under color of government authority. No law enforcement agency should exercise the great power entrusted to it so recklessly.

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