Contractor gets $1.6M, apology from Montco D.A.

Risa Vetri Ferman
Risa Vetri Ferman
Posted: May 22, 2014

Montgomery County has agreed to pay $1.65 million to a Radnor Township contractor who accused District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman of bringing unfounded theft charges against him at the behest of a church that counts prominent county officials among its members.

As part of the agreement, finalized this week, Ferman admitted no improper influence but was required to issue an apology to Walter Logan, whose alleged crimes she once described as "particularly despicable" and "really very low."

Those words, delivered to a TV news crew, came hours after her office had charged Logan in 2009 with bilking hundreds of thousands of dollars from Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown during a contract dispute.

Ferman struck a different tone in her statement to Logan, released Tuesday by his attorneys.

"The Montgomery County District Attorney's Office apologizes to Mr. Logan for the arrest and any statements made to the press regarding the arrest," it read. "There is no credible evidence that Mr. Logan ever stole anything from Salem Baptist Church, and we retract any statements to that effect."

The settlement is the largest paid by the county to cover suits against the District Attorney's Office since at least 2000. It closes a significant chapter in a five-year struggle for Logan, who is expected to address the end of his case against Ferman at a news conference Wednesday.

His conflict with the church and his subsequent arrest left his business reputation ruined, his lawyers said. His lawsuit accused Salem, investigators, and prosecutors of defamation, abuse of process, and civil conspiracy.

For Ferman, 49, a second-term district attorney frequently mentioned for higher office, the apology constitutes a rare admission.

"A public apology under these circumstances is something I find almost unprecedented," said Bennett L. Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York and expert in prosecutorial ethics.

It also marks the second time this year that Ferman has publicly conceded that her office mishandled a high-profile case.

Last month, she dropped rape charges against former Montgomery County Republican Party Chair Robert Kerns. Ferman didn't back away from the allegation - that Kerns raped a female employee at his law firm - but acknowledged county investigators had misinterpreted lab results to suggest he had drugged his accuser.

The state Attorney General's Office has since taken up that prosecution.

Ferman did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment on the Logan settlement. Of the $1.6 million, $250,000 of the payout to the contractor is expected to come from county coffers and the rest will be paid through a county insurance policy, said sources familiar with the deal but not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Mark W. Tanner, Logan's lawyer, said he could not comment on the settlement amount, which was reported in the church's court filings. But he described the resolution of the case against Ferman as proof that "no one is above the law."

"Not lawyers, not companies, not judges, not district attorneys, not even churches," he said.

The dispute arose with Logan over his work on construction of a $3.2 million family center on the church's Old York Road campus.

Salem abruptly withdrew from the contract in 2007, prompting a lawsuit from Logan's firm, in which he claimed the church still owed him $213,000. Salem maintained that Logan had kept money he should have paid to his subcontractors.

The settlement comes eight months after a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that the civil case should proceed to trial and that a jury might reasonably conclude that Ferman and the case's chief investigator, Detective Mary Anders, had "acted with reckless disregard for the truth" in prosecuting Logan.

Evidence suggested county detectives relied almost entirely on the church's legal team to build their case - going so far as to allow its lawyers to rewrite charging documents and dictate the timing of the arrest to benefit Salem financially, U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner found.

Logan's lawyers contend the events leading up to that arrest - as described in depositions and e-mails filed as part of the court record - suggest the church's high-profile members exerted their influence over county law enforcement to press a questionable prosecution.

The District Attorney's Office eventually withdrew criminal charges against Logan and one of his employees, Lester Mack, in January 2010 - a year after their arrests and eight months after a civil arbiter found that it was Salem who owed Logan money, not the other way around.

In a separate settlement, Montgomery County has agreed to pay $150,000 to Mack's widow. He died of colon cancer within a year of his release from custody.

Logan and Mack's estate continue to pursue claims against the church. A federal jury trial is set for September.

"This case is a long way from being over," said Dion G. Rassias, a lawyer representing Mack's widow. "That apology applies to Lester from the grave, and we very much look forward to trial."

Founded in 1884, Salem has long held close ties to the county power brokers and counts among its members Oscar Vance, the former head of the Montgomery County Detectives Bureau, and county Common Pleas Court Judge Garrett Page.

In hope of winning their contract dispute with Logan, the church's lawyers devised a plan to bring a criminal theft case against him as leverage to force him to settle, a series of March 2008 e-mails submitted as part of the court record shows.

Page, then serving as Montgomery County treasurer and head of the church's steering committee, gave their plan to approach Ferman "the green light" in an e-mail later that year. He attended a meeting in which a church lawyer urged the district attorney to take on the case.

In a February 2013 deposition, Ferman said it was not unusual for her to meet one-on-one with public officials wanting to report what they believed to be illegal activity. She testified that she referred the matter to the county detectives for investigation, and had very little to do with the case thereafter.

The problem, Logan's lawyers have argued in their case before Joyner, was that Vance, then the head of the detective's bureau, was also a longtime Salem member. He had previously credited a former pastor with landing him his first county law enforcement job in 1963.

Vance, who retired from his government job in 2012, would later testify that he recused himself from the Salem investigation. Yet, in a May 30, 2008, e-mail included in the court record, the chief urged his staff to keep him up to date. "This is my church," he wrote.

Vance was not named as a defendant in Logan's civil suit, though the settlement with the county covers claims he lodged against Anders.

As for Ferman, she has described any suggestion that either man swayed her decisions regarding Logan's prosecution as "an offensive accusation."

"I have never in any case allowed any individual to exert any influence of an improper nature over me," she testified in her deposition.

Still, when reporters began calling in January 2009 about the case, she had reservations about responding.

"I think we ought to skip the press release," she wrote in an e-mail to a staff member that month. "With this being the chief's church, I do not want us to call attention to it."

Bennett, the Pace law professor, said Tuesday those reservations should have raised larger questions about the case.

"Prosecutors have the most power of anyone in our society - the power to cause a person to lose their liberty, their freedom, or their life," he said. "The person using that charging power has to be careful."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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