Former Montgomery County GOP Chairman Robert J. Kerns, 66, has been charged with 19 criminal counts including rape and sexual assault.
The charges come nearly two weeks after he resigned his political post amid reports he allegedly assaulted an employee of his Upper Gwynedd, Pa., law firm, Kerns, Pearlstine, Onorato & Hladik.
The charges, docketed Tuesday in the Magisterial District Court in Montgomery County, were filed by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office. Magisterial District Judge Robert M. Sobeck handled the arraignment and the case has been moved to the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Assistant District Attorney Samantha Louise Root Cauffman is handling the case for her office, according to the docket.
The charges against Kerns, which stem from an alleged incident Oct. 25, include rape of an unconscious victim, rape of an impaired person, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, possession of a controlled substance, possession with the intent to manufacture or deliver and tampering with/fabricating physical evidence, according to the docket. The case was referred to a grand jury Nov. 12 and a presentment was submitted Nov. 20 finding probable cause to charge Kerns.
Kerns’ preliminary arraignment was held Tuesday afternoon. Bail was set at 10 percent of $1 million, according to the docket. Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas Judge Kent Albright ordered Tuesday that, as condition of the bail, Kerns be subject to GPS monitoring supervised by the Montgomery County Probation Department.
According to the docket in the case and the Montgomery County Jail’s inmate tracker, Kerns was still in custody as of press time Tuesday and had yet to post bail.
Brian McMonagle of McMonagle, Perri, McHugh & Mischak is Kerns’ attorney, according to the docket. A call to his office wasn’t immediately returned. Nor was a call to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
According to court documents and a statement from Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, the charges stem from events that occurred after Kerns and the victim, a 51-year-old female paralegal at Kerns’ law firm, left a work party at the Radice restaurant in Whitpain Township, Pa., on Oct. 25. The victim had worked part-time at Kerns’ firm since October 2012.
Kerns and the victim left around 6 p.m. and Kerns offered the victim a ride to the King of Prussia Mall. Once in Kerns’ car, Kerns allegedly “encouraged the victim to drink from a bottle of wine that he had secretly drugged with Ambien,” according to the statement. The woman drank the wine and quickly lost consciousness, Ferman said. That is when Kerns allegedly raped and sexually abused the woman while they were in the car, according to the statement.
“The defendant’s assault on the victim was so violent that it caused severe genital injuries and other visible injuries to multiple parts of her body,” Ferman said in the statement.
The alleged abuse did not end at that point, according to Ferman, who said in the statement that the victim began to regain consciousness as Kerns was driving her home. The victim told investigators that she remembers the defendant taking her up to her bedroom. The defendant then allegedly removed the victim’s clothing and sexually abused her one more time before leaving her home, according to Ferman’s statement.
Lab reports indicated the victim tested positive for Ambien, which she said she did not knowingly ingest, according to Ferman’s statement. According to the criminal complaint, Kerns lied to investigators during a Nov. 5 interview and attempted to destroy evidence by cleaning his car and throwing out a wine glass and wine bottle after learning there was an investigation ongoing.
“The grand jury believes that Kerns’ conduct on Oct. 25, 2013, is manipulative and predatory,” the grand jury said in the presentment. “Spiking a bottle of wine with a sleep-inducing drug and offering a celebratory drink to an employee who had no reason to distrust her employer was a predatory act designed to yield a compliant and unaware victim.”
The grand jury further noted it felt Kerns thought the victim would not remember the incident and not report it to police, according to the presentment.
Ferman, a county Republican, referred the case to the state Attorney General’s Office to make a charging decision, and, if necessary, assume any future prosecution, First Assistant District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said. Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined the referral because Ferman does not have an actual conflict of interest, Steele said.
Some in the legal community had questioned whether Ferman’s ties to the Republican Party created an appearance of impropriety that would warrant the case being referred out.
Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Michael J. Engle of Greenblatt, Pierce, Engle, Funt & Flores said it was encouraging to hear Ferman attempted to refer the case to the Attorney General’s Office.
“I’m surprised actually that the AG’s office didn’t bother to get involved,” Engle said. “It certainly is an area of concern where there is that political affiliation. If someone could call it into question, that usually is enough to step aside. Maybe it was just something that the AG’s office didn’t want to touch.”
Kane spokesman Joe Peters said the office’s “hands are tied by the law.” He said that under the Commonwealth Attorneys Act, Kane had to decline the prosecution because Ferman said in her Nov. 11 letter to Kane that Ferman did not have an actual conflict but rather alluded to an appearance of impropriety.
“Those words alone pre-empt us from taking” the matter, Peters said of Ferman’s comment that she did not have an actual conflict.
Peters said Kane responded to Ferman in a Nov. 14 letter. He declined to provide the letters to The Legal.
Kerns was elected chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party in 2008 and re-elected in 2010. In addition to his party involvement, Kerns also spent a portion of his practice as solicitor to Upper Gwynedd Township, West Norriton Township and the Borough of Trappe. The West Norriton Township manager’s office said earlier this month that Kerns was no longer the solicitor.
Upper Gwynedd Township manager Leonard T. Perrone said Tuesday that township representatives have met with Kerns’ law firm and the township is currently evaluating its options moving forward.
A call to Trappe was not returned by press time Tuesday.
While it’s unclear whether the two are related, Kerns’ law firm website has been “under construction” since news first broke he was being investigated. According to a prior version of his website bio, Kerns is a Conshohocken, Pa., native who graduated from Villanova University School of Law. He is married with three adult sons. His practice has focused on municipal law, real estate, zoning matters, commercial land development, condemnation and litigation as well as medical malpractice. Aside from the three solicitorships he has most recently held, Kerns was previously solicitor for several other townships and Montgomery County.