,NORRISTOWN -- Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman Monday announced the creation of a new investigation unit designed, with the help of the public, to ferret out public corruption.
Generally, the unit will probe complaints from the public regarding elected officials or people in positions of trust who may have violated the public trust for their own financial benefit or simply for power, according to Ferman.
The unit will investigate theft-based crimes, abuse of authority and ethics violations, she said.
While the office has always investigated public corruption, a specific unit has not been assigned to
Citing the public outrage stemming from the results of public corruption investigations in Washington, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Ferman said, "The public has lost confidence in many of their elected leaders and in government as a whole. We want to do what we can to help restore that confidence in government at the local and the county level."
"I feel it is important that our residents know that there is an office in Montgomery County where they can raise their concerns, where those concerns will be taken seriously and where nobody need fear official retribution," said Ferman.
Too often members of the public "feel something is just not right" but do not know how to address those issues, she said. Now, she continued, they will have a place to voice concerns about public corruption.
"I want this office to be pro-active," Ferman emphasized.
Ferman, a Republican, emphasized her office will handle complaints about Republicans and Democrats equally.
"Those who abuse their power often believe themselves untouchable because of their public position or public influence," said Ferman. "I can assure the people of Montgomery County that nobody is 'untouchable.'"
That is one of the reasons she tapped Assistant District Attorney Samantha L.R. Cauffman to serve as team captain of the new unit.
"I put someone in charge of the unit who is as non-political, as apolitical as you can get," said Ferman. "Samantha Cauffman is a hard-charging prosecutor who takes no prisoners, who has done a tremendous job in this office going after some of the worst sex offenders we have had and I have complete confidence in her ability and drive to do the job the right way."
Detective Lt. Mark A. Bernstiel, who heads the detectives' special investigation unit and previously headed the elite law enforcement CLEAN unit that helped combat crime in Norristown, will provide investigative support the new unit needs.
The new unit will have all investigative tools of the office at its disposal including the use of the investigating grand jury, grants of immunity and the use of informants and electronic devices such as wiretaps, according to Ferman.
"I am aware that these are crimes often committed in secret where our strongest investigative methods are necessary to gather evidence," said Ferman.
Also, Ferman noted, her office has "tremendous working relationships" with both the state Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
If the uncovered information can best be prosecuted by these law enforcement agencies, that information will be passed on.
Ferman cited the district attorney's office investigation in the early 2000s into drug-trafficking and fraud by Ernest W. Scott, a former Republican Norristown councilman, and some family members.
Not only did that investigation lead to the breakup of a major marijuana drug-trafficking ring working in the Norristown area with the arrest and prosecution of Scott, several family members and others, information was obtained concerning public corruption in Norristown.
That information was turned over to federal authorities, which led to a federal political corruption probe that resulted in the arrest and successful prosecution of Ted LeBlanc, Norristown's former mayor, former borough administrator Anthony Biondi and others.
"Whatever it takes and whoever it involves, we will take these investigations to where they lead us," said Ferman.