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Montgomery County DA Risa Vetri Ferman Speaks Out on PA Supreme Court Decision

Court ruled that recently enacted ethis ordinance does not apply to the district attorney's office.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman and invalidated the county’s ethics ordinance.

Ordinance 09-1, which was enacted in 2009, placed a mandatory ethics code on all county offices, both elected and appointed. Chairman James Matthews and Vice Chairman Joe Hoeffel passed the ordinance while Commissioner Bruce Castor opposed the legislation.

Ferman said she believed the ordinance was invalid and against the law because she is an independently elected official and the county should not have control over her office. Ferman filed a lawsuit with the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas in May 2009. The court ruled in favor of Ferman, as did the Commonwealth Court when the commissioners appealed the initial ruling.

On June 21, the state Supreme Court also ruled in favor of the district attorney after the commissioners appealed the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.

“They have no more right to pass an ordinance on how the district attorney should run her office than an ordinance as to how the mayor of Philadelphia runs his office,” Ferman said.

Ferman said she was pleased with the outcome but said it won’t change the day-to-day operations of her office.

“I have extensive ethical guidelines. My staff has been following my rules all along, not the commissioners,” Ferman said.

Ferman said the legal language is that she has the ability to hire, fire and supervise her employees. She said the one thing the ruling changes is now there is no longer the prospect that the commissioners could have the authority over cases that the district attorney takes or how she conducts them.

“Their actions were nothing more than an interference on the independence of an elected official,” Ferman said.

Castor said he believed the ordinance was an effort to attack the district attorney, the sheriff and other elected officials who may plan to run for higher offices in the future.

“It was an assault on the power of the district attorney’s office and the checks and balance system that the American government is based on,” Castor said.

Hoeffel disagrees and said the point of the ordinance was simply to have less political activity and more ethics in the county departments.

“The concept is to get more ethics and not less ethics in the county court house, which needs more ethics,” Hoeffel said.

Hoeffel said the ethics code was put in place to regulate employee behavior and protect employees as well.

Part of the ordinance still stands and an ethics code is still in place for the county departments and employees that were appointed by the commissioner’s office.

Hoeffel said for the employees who work for the commissioners directly, three restrictions have been put in place – they can’t run for public office, manage someone else’s campaign or politically fundraise for anyone running for office.

“I thought our restrictions were sensible and reasonable,” Hoeffel said, adding the ordinance didn’t go as far to say employees couldn’t participate in political rallies or show support in other ways.

Castor said there is a question of whether some of Matthews’ employees “run afoul of the ordinance” because some also worked for his political campaign.  He said the invalidation of the ordinance means that the district attorney could now investigate commissioners without their interference, which were a concern before.

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